The Home Office is finalising details of a concession which would allow wives to claim residency rights if they can prove they have been the victim of domestic violence or their husband dies. The move follows growing concern about women being forced into arranged marriages. Many Asian women will face death threats if they leave their husbands and return to their own countries.
Last week a mother and her son were jailed for life for murdering a teenage daughter of the family whom they believed had insulted their honour by having an adulterous affair. On Wednesday Mr O'Brien also met a young couple who had been in hiding for six years after receiving death threats from the wife's family when she refused to marry a cousin in Pakistan.
Ministers believe that it would be difficult to impose rules on all arranged marriages, because they are a key part of Asian culture. However, the Government is determined to do more to protect women.
Under the current rules, women who come to the United Kingdom to get married must have lived with their British husbands for at least 12 months before they can apply to stay in the country permanently. Some suffer violence, or are verbally abused, but can do nothing because if they leave their husband, they will get thrown out of the country. In one recent case, a Pakistani woman who came to Britain last June faces deportation after leaving her husband when he threatened to kill her. "He treated me like a slave, he had no respect because he knew he could control me," she said. She did not leave home for months because she did not want to get sent back to Pakistan, as her husband warned her his family would kill her.
Another woman, also from Pakistan, who left her husband after he beat her up, said: "The law isn't right, women aren't to blame if this happens to them, they are the ones who have been beaten, they should not be deported."
Home Office ministers believe that the victims of domestic violence should be able to leave their homes without forfeiting the right to British citizenship. Campaigners say the new rules are likely to affect around 500 women a year.
Hannana Siddiqui of Southall Black Sisters, a support group for victims of domestic violence, said: "No one should have to stay in a violent relationship in order to stay in the country - that goes against the Government's own policy on domestic violence."
Critics will argue that the system could be open to abuse by couples who enter into sham marriages, then claim that the relationship has broken down, in order to win residency. However, the Government intends to impose strict criteria.
The concession comes as the Government faces an embarrassing rebellion over the asylum system reforms. Dozens of Labour MPs are supporting an amendment to the Immigration and Asylum Bill.
Ministers, determined to avoid a repeat of the revolt by more than 80 Labour backbenchers over the Welfare Bill, are likely to make compromises. The 50p daily payments for each child are expected to be doubled and extra safeguards for young people built in.
Although the proposals to increase the rights of foreign wives are not specifically included in the Bill, ministers are planning to announce the concession to prove that they are reasonable about asylum.
Last Tuesday, Shakeela Naz, 45, and her son Shazad, 22, were convicted of the murder of her daughter Rukhsana. The mother held her daughter's feet while her son strangled his 19-year-old sister at her home in Normanton, Derby.
The following day, Mr O'Brien listened as Zena and Jack Briggs from Bradford described their life on the run from private detectives and bounty hunters hired by her family to kill them when she refused to agree to an arranged marriage.
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