Young British women who have been forced into marriages overseas are having to pay to be rescued by the Foreign Office, it has been revealed. The department asks them to spend their own money or take out loans for flights, food and shelter, with critics calling the situation "morally wrong" and "totally unacceptable".
An investigation by The Times found that British victims who ask for help abroad are told about the financial costs upfront, and UK officials will help them access their own money and/or contact friends, family or organisations that can foot the bill. Vulnerable women forced into marriage are effectively being asked to buy their own freedom, and are being treated in the same way as other British people who have got into trouble abroad.
Those who can't find the money must sign loan agreements before they can return home, with their passports confiscated by the government until the money is repaid. A 10% surcharge is added to the total amount if the loan isn't repaid within six months.
In 2018, four young women who were sent to a religious “correctional school” in Somalia by their families were charged £740 each by the government. They claimed to have been chained to walls, whipped with hosepipes and threatened with forced marriage in the country, and told The Times they were left in a desperate situation by the UK government's policy. Some said they had to claim benefits or use university loans to afford the costs. Two are now living in refuges in the UK, while two have become drug addicts since their return.
One 24-year-old victim, from London, told The Times she had been left unable to work after her passport was confiscated by the Foreign Office. “I am trying my best to move on but I’m in debt, I’m struggling. I’ve been put up in a B&B and I’m worried I’ll be homeless. I can’t ask my family for help because of what I was put through. You can’t work without a passport. I called one of the women from the Foreign Office numerous times but she said I had to pay back the money.”
The Foreign Office helped 27 forced marriage survivors return to the UK in 2017 and 55 in 2016, according to an Freedom of Information request. It has loaned £7,765 to at least eight victims in the past two years, with about £3,000 having been repaid and around £4,500 outstanding.
It's a tiny sum, and the current policy flies in the face of Theresa May's stance on forced marriage, which she has described as a “tragedy for each and every victim”. MPs from across the political spectrum, human rights experts and commentators have condemned the policy on social media since the story emerged.
Aisha Gill, a leading forced marriage expert and Professor of Criminology at the University of Roehampton, said it was "morally wrong" to charge women to be saved by their government and that "protection should not have a price tag." While Labour MP Yvette Cooper described forced marriage as slavery and said the situation needed to be "put right fast".
It is morally wrong to charge victims/survivors of forced marriage, who need to safely exit back to the UK. Protection should not have a price tag. 💰— Professor Aisha K. Gill ✒📑 (@DrAishaKGill) January 2, 2019
Women forced into marriage overseas asked to repay cost of return to UK.https://t.co/tH2Xmb11uz
Pragna Patel, founder of Southall Black Sisters, which helps women to escape forced marriages and “honour”-based violence, said victims were "vulnerable young women who have been taken abroad through no fault of their own and forced into slavery and yet they are being asked to pay for their protection."
She told The Times: "It can’t be right. Protecting victims from forced marriage must be seen as a fundamental right and not a profit-making business.”
The Foreign Office said its loans were more generous than commercial options: “Given these are from public funds, we have an obligation to recover the money.” And that its Forced Marriage Unit "provides funding for safe houses and non-governmental organisations to ensure victims of forced marriage can get to a place of safety as soon as possible."