MPs told: Don't aid forced marriages

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The Independent Online
MEMBERS OF Parliament have been asked to stop interfering in immigration applications following reports in The Independent showing they were unwittingly contributing to an increase in forced marriages.

A senior parliamentary committee has warned that members of all parties were inadvertently causing some young British Asians to be married against their will while immigration officials were trying to help them. According to a report by the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, problems arise when MPs agree to constituents' requests for them to write to British Entry Clearance Officers (ECOs) in Islamabad, Pakistan, asking for visa applications for new spouses to be speeded up.

The applications relate to Pakistani-born husbands or brides who have recently married British Asians and are awaiting clearance. The vast majority of these cases are genuine but a tiny proportion relate to forced marriages which the British Asian spouses oppose. Because of family pressure and coercion, however, many feel obliged to marry against their will.

In some cases, officials in Islamabad are privately asked for help by the victim. But their efforts to refuse a visa for the unwanted spouse are stymied when well-meaning MPs interfere on behalf of the unwilling spouse's family.

The committee says: "If a Member makes representations in such a case, perhaps at the behest of the sponsor's parents following an arranged marriage, and the ECO has no other grounds for refusing a visa, the likely outcome is that one will be issued, thus forcing a couple together against their joint will."

The committee said the situation has worsened since Labour abolished the "primary purpose" rule, which said a spouse's application could be rejected if it appeared that the sole reason for the marriage was to gain access to the UK. What MPs must consider, however, is that since the rule's abolition, many more genuine applicants who had been kept apart have been allowed entry to be with their loved ones.

The Independent revealed how hundreds of second and third generation Asian women were running away from home after fearing they could be forced into a marriage they did not want. As a result, there was a huge growth in the use of "bounty hunters" who tracked them down and returned them to their families.

Ann Cryer found she was regularly asked to help speed up visa applications after being elected as Labour MP for Keighley. However, after a time, she refused unless she could personally meet the bride on whose part she was supposed to be intervening.

"When I asked [the fathers] whether I could speak to their daughters, I was almost always told they were too shy.," she said.

"I decided to refuse to become involved unless the daughter came to see me so I could be sure she was not forced into the marriage. Now that word of that decision has got round, I don't seem to be asked for that kind of help."

The select committee would now like MPs to follow Mrs Cryer's example.

It concluded: "We cannot believe that any of our colleagues would knowingly wish to play a part in forcing a couple together in this way. This is a very difficult area for all concerned, but we urge our colleagues to be aware of the fact that on occasion there is a risk that they may unwittingly be party to bringing about such a situation."