LONDON—A new report alleges officials at a British government agency are failing to protect teenage girls forced into abusive marriages by handing visas to their foreign husbands, over the objections of victims and other concerned parties.
The Home Office—a department responsible for immigration, security, and law and order—processed 88 requests last year to block visas, data obtained by The London Times indicates. Yet in 42 of these cases, officials still issued visas to the husbands.
Campaigners say this may open the door to horrific abuse.
‘The Girls Are Physically, Sexually Abused’
“We’ve had a number of cases like this and they go unchallenged. The girls are physically and sexually abused by the men that come over,” said Aneeta Prem, founder of Freedom, an organization that supports victims of forced marriage.
The 88 cases included direct requests from victims, known as “reluctant sponsors.” Other requests came from third parties or instances where an official suspected a forced marriage.
In 10 cases, appeals are being heard or reviews are still being conducted.
“There are a number of reasons why cases are referred to the forced marriage unit, not all of which are the result of a reluctant sponsor getting in contact,” a Home Office spokeswoman said.
“In some cases, it will be decided, following enquiries, that no further action is necessary and a visa will be issued.”
‘They Are Turning a Blind Eye’
But campaigners and victims say there’s something wrong with the system.
“Even when officials know it’s a forced marriage, they see tradition, culture, or religion and they’re reticent to deal with it,” Jasvinder Sanghera, of the Karma Nirvana charity, told the paper. “They are turning a blind eye.”
The victims who brought forward objections to visa issuance had been forced to marry men in such countries as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and the United Arab Emirates.
The Home Office spokeswoman told The Times that it “categorically denies” the allegations, adding that the UK was a world leader in tackling the “horrendous crime of forced marriage.”
“We take our safeguarding responsibilities very seriously. If an individual refuses to act as the sponsor for a visa application then under the immigration rules, that visa should not be issued,” she said.
Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of the Home Affairs Committee at the UK Parliament, said the report represents a failure on the part of the department, and vowed to investigate.
“Despite being warned to do more to help victims of forced marriage, it looks as though the Home Office has failed and put victims at risk,” Cooper said.
“Yet again, we are in a situation where repeated warnings have failed to translate into action from the Home Office.”
Calls for Systemic Change
One systemic obstacle that may impact visa approval rates is that the only way the victim of a forced marriage can formally object to a visa being issued to her abuser is by signing a public statement. This means members of the woman’s or girl’s family have access to this information, putting her at potentially great risk.
Some campaigners call for legislative changes that would allow women to register visa objections anonymously.
But previous efforts to pass such laws have been unsuccessful, with the government taking the position that visa applicants are entitled to know the reasons for a refusal.
Victims of forced marriage tell of threats against their lives, rape, violence, and domestic confinement tantamount to slavery.
The UK enacted laws in 2014 that make forced marriage illegal. It is considered a form of domestic and child abuse, as well as a serious violation of human rights.