The Foreign Office is seeking to recoup the cost of repatriating young women who have been forced into marriages overseas, it has been revealed, prompting charities to criticise the government for making women “pay for their protection”. An investigation found that many of the 82 victims of forced marriage repatriated in 2016-17 had to pay…
The Foreign Office is seeking to recoup the cost of repatriating young women who have been forced into marriages overseas, it has been revealed, prompting charities to criticise the government for making women “pay for their protection”.
An investigation found that many of the 82 victims of forced marriage repatriated in 2016-17 had to pay for living costs incurred between making distress calls and returning home, as well as their airfare, while others received loans from the Foreign Office.
They had to give up their passports as a condition of the loan until they repaid the debt, with a surcharge added to unpaid bills after six months.
Four young British women imprisoned and tortured at a “correctional” religious school in Somalia ahead of expected forced marriages told the Times they each had to pay £740 to return home, where the burden of the loans allegedly contributed towards them becoming destitute.
Pragna Patel, the founder of Southall Black Sisters, a charity that helps women escape from forced marriages, told the Times: “These are 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. It can’t be right. Protecting victims from forced marriage must be seen as a fundamental right and not a profit-making business.”
In March 2017, the Foreign Office announced it would amend its repatriation policy so that British 16- and 17-year-olds who got into difficulty abroad would no longer have to reimburse the government the costs of their journey home. The policy is still in place for people aged 18 and over.
The change came after the Guardian and the Muslim Women’s Network UK highlighted the practice of requiring victims of forced marriage to pay their own repatriation costs. The Guardian detailed the case of a 17-year-old British girl who arrived at the UK embassy in Islamabad in 2014 seeking help to escape a forced marriage.
The girl, who could not be named for safety reasons, was required to sign a loan agreement and surrender her passport before she was flown back to the UK. She was then issued a bill for £814, the cost of her repatriation from Pakistan, and told she would not have her passport returned until she repaid the money.
The joint Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office forced marriage unit works with charities, shelters and safe houses in a number of countries to ensure victims of forced marriage are safeguarded. It assists with rescues of victims held against their will overseas in extreme circumstances. Foreign nationals who had been living in the UK must pay for this service; UK nationals are not charged.
Jeremy Hunt, the UK foreign secretary, who is in Singapore at the start of a three-day visit to Asia, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he wanted “to get to the bottom” of the issue. He said: “I have asked officials to give me some proper advice on the whole issue on the basis of seeing this story.
“Any interventions that I have had on these consular matters I have always stressed to embassies and posts abroad that they need to use discretion. Of course we should always behave with compassion and humanity in every situation.”
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “In very exceptional circumstances, including in cases of forced marriage overseas, we can provide an emergency loan to help someone return home.
“We recognise an emergency loan can help remove a distressed or vulnerable person from risk when they have no other options, but as they are from public funds we have an obligation to recover the money in due course.
“When people contact us for help … we work with them to access their own funds, or help them contact friends, family or organisations that can cover the costs. Many of the victims who the forced marriage unit help are vulnerable, and when offering any support their safety is our primary concern.”