Today, the government has announced its decision to stop charging forced marriage victims for their repatriation. We welcome this u-turn by the government: its shameful practice of charging forced marriage victims for their freedom was always an abuse of those who are the most vulnerable amongst us, invariably young, isolated, and destitute. Recovering costs for repatriation from perpetrators is a stance we also fully support. The decision to scrap that practice and the promise to write off all current debts and return passports is a vindication of the efforts of all victims of forced marriage who have stood courageously with us in our campaign to call for justice. This victory is theirs, but credit must also be given to the media which, when it works in co-operation with activism, can be such a powerful tool for change.
Our work on forced marriage cannot end though. In this age of political cynicism and biting austerity, we need more action and resources to ensure that all victims of forced marriage and other forms of gender-based harm are adequately protected in accordance with human rights and non-discrimination principles. This is the clear message we will be sending to the government in our response to a consultation on the issue of mandatory reporting on forced marriage currently underway.
The struggle continues. In the meantime, should you wish to support our work in this area through donations click here.
On 2 January, The Times broke the story that the Foreign Office is charging British nationals who have been forced into marriage for their rescue costs. SBS worked with The Times to uncover what is, by any standard, an indefensible practice. It is yet another demonstration that the government’s rhetoric on forced marriage is not matched by its actions.
Our campaigns and work on forced marriage over the last three decades has led to positive changes in the law and policy, but swinging cuts and reduced services severely hinder the ability of victims to obtain protection and justice. The government must not shift the responsibility for protection on to victims of forced marriage. It must instead provide the necessary resources to make good its commitment to upholding the dignity and fundamental rights of all citizens.
Jeremy Hunt says he wants ‘to get to the bottom of the issue’: he is referring to the abhorrent practice of his own department of state – the Foreign Office – whereby British national victims of a forced marriage abroad are made to pay for their protection and rescue. In fact, this is not a new issue. Southall Black Sisters has highlighted concern about the practice for some time but without success. This is why Jeremy Hunt’s appeal to British embassies to show ‘more humanity and compassion’ appears disingenuous.
Victims of forced marriage abroad are required to pay for the costs of their rescue before they board a plane to the UK. Those who cannot find the money have to sign up to a loan, usually around £700, which they are required to repay within the stipulated 6 months, subject to a 10% surcharge thereafter. Any passport in their possession is retained until they have repaid the loan in full. Most will sign up to the loan out of desperation, without any understanding of what they are signing or of the legal consequences of doing so. When faced with the alternative of enslavement, rape, sexual and physical violence, martial captivity, fear and even death in the form of so called honour killings, what choice do they have?
Successive governments have proclaimed that protecting victims of forced marriage is a priority; that young women have ‘rights’, ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ in marriage. But that clearly comes with a heavy financial price tag for some minority women and girls.
Five young British girls – rescued from appalling violence, abuse and torture at a so called ‘correctional school’ in Somaliland – were shown little compassion by the British Embassy who arranged for them to be repatriated the UK. Following their return to the UK, they told SBS that what weighed most heavily on their minds was the financial debt that they incurred in order to obtain their protection: they had been required to signed up to loans of £750 each on average to cover the costs of their flights, accommodation and food. For them – highly vulnerable, acutely traumatised and isolated young women who were brutalised at the hands of the very people they trusted and loved – the debt was a cause of palpable distress and anxiety; it hung around them like a hangman’s noose, preventing them from starting new lives, from imagining a future free from fear and violence.
What is particularly disturbing and shocking is that there appears to be a chain of financial exploitation running through the entire story in this particular case, from start to finish, beginning in the private sphere and ending with British state complicity.
The owner of the ‘correctional’ school saw an opportunity to exploit parental anxiety about their girls becoming ‘too westernised’ in the UK: preventing ‘westernisation’ is a familiar trope in cases of forced marriage where the key goal is to control women’s bodies and minds. At the school, the girls experienced serious institutional abuse consisting of imprisonment, sexual and physical assault, corruption and torture for the purposes of re-education into religious and cultural norms on gender roles, including conformity to the practice of forced marriage. This continued until one of the girls escaped and raised the alarm. The British embassy – and those from other countries – stepped in to repatriate the girls to their respective countries.
But this intervention provided the British government with an opportunity to recover, not only the costs of the repatriation of the girls, but also to make a profit at their expense, or at the very least to penalise the girls for their own predicament. The sums involved are really a paltry amount to the state, but deeply overwhelming to the young victims involved. Would we accept the Home Office inflicting a call-out charge on victims of domestic violence, or any other type of crime, when they pick up the phone to the police?
When questioned about the practice of seeking reimbursement with interest for the costs of protection, the Foreign Office has provided no meaningful justification for the demand for reimbursement. They have stated that they provide ‘emergency loans’ if victims cannot find the money from friends or family. This misses the point entirely: seeking financial help from friends and family puts the victims and those who help them at further risk of harm. In any event, if the practice of charging is not considered valid for those aged 16 to 17, why is it deemed to be good practice for vulnerable 18 year olds? An arbitrary line appears to have been drawn that defies any logic. With regard to the demand for interest, the Foreign Office said initially that none was charged. However, when faced with written evidence produced by SBS, they said they were only applying a surcharge of 10%, required because the state has an obligation to the public purse, comparing the practice to that applied to tourists who get into trouble abroad. And finally, when faced with the inescapable immorality of the practice, Jeremy Hunt urged British embassies abroad to show more compassion and humanity.
Indeed, compassion and humanity would not go amiss in this age of political cynicism and biting austerity, but that is not enough. What is at stake here is, not a question of rescuing tourists in trouble abroad, but a question about the rights of some of the most vulnerable people in our society: the right of forced marriage victims to be protected as British citizens; those who, but for being taken abroad, would be entitled to protection without discrimination in the UK.
For over two decades and more, SBS has worked with successive governments to secure proper protection for forced marriage victims against a backdrop of state indifference and deference to religious and cultural ‘leaderships’ who wish to maintain control and power. But now the British government is undoing its stated aim of addressing forced marriage as an abuse of human rights. The clear obligation to protect victims of forced marriage and repatriation appears to be routinely flouted. That obligation cannot be outweighed by any obligation to the taxpayer. In effect, the current practice amounts to discrimination and a derogation of duty. Protection from forced marriage is being reduced to a protection racket, in a commercial transaction into which the state coerces victims of the crime of forced marriage: those who, through no choice of their own, are taken abroad by abusive families and then made to pay for their return by the state.
We need your support to help us stop the government from charging to rescue vulnerable victims of forced marriage who are taken abroad. The ability of repatriated victims to support themselves is also severely hampered by the fact that the Foreign Office retains their passports or delays in issuing a new passport until the loans have been fully paid back. This means that once in the UK, the victims have no proof of identity and cannot access employment, education and other services that are vital to their recovery. Most are destitute upon return and have no family or friends to turn to. They have no means by which to support themselves and pay off their debts. In these circumstances, vulnerable victims are likely to make choices that put them at greater risk of abuse and exploitation.
This is why the current practice of charging victims for protection amounts to complicity in the enslavement and exploitation of young vulnerable minority women and girls. It is morally and politically indefensible. It must stop.
(a version of this was originally published in The Guardian)
Daily Sabah Europe: UK making forced marriage victims pay their repatriation costs, report reveals
The New York Times: Freed From Forced Marriages, U.K. Women Stuck With the Bill
Standard Digital: Britain failing forced marriage victims – campaigners