Revealed: Government's 'heartless' treatment of forced marriage victims

Traumatised British citizens told to take out loans to pay for flights home

British citizens who have been forced into marriages overseas are being asked to cover the costs of their repatriation to the UK, The Independent has learnt.

The victims, many of whom will have been through violent and traumatic ordeals by the time they reach British officials, are being asked to cover the cost of their flights back to the UK, either out of their own pocket or by finding a friend who is willing to pay for them.

Under guidelines distributed by the Forced Marriage Unit to civil servants and diplomats abroad, victims who cannot find enough cash are even being asked to take out a low interest loan which will only be given to them if they surrender their passport until the loan is fully repaid.

The emergence of the guidelines comes just days after The Independent revealed that two of Britain’s most prominent charities working with victims of forced marriages have had their Government funding slashed. The Honour Network, which runs Britain’s only national helpline for forced marriage victims, and the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation are now reliant on public donations and say they will have to begin cutting vital services unless more money can be found.

Opposition politicians last night attacked the repatriation methods as “heartless” and said that confiscating a victim’s passport until a loan was repaid was a tactic “reminiscent of those used by people traffickers.”

Baroness Warsi, the Conservative Party’s most senior Muslim politician, told The Independent last night: “Every forced marriage is a tragedy. These young people have already suffered enough. They have been betrayed by close friends and relatives, and now heartless ministers are asking them to pick up the bill for their rescue.”

The guidelines, which are contained in a 105-page document seen by The Independent entitled “Handling Cases of Forced Marriages”, were drawn up earlier this year and distributed to civil servants involved with forced marriage cases and victims of so-called “honour violence”.

In a chapter entitled “Repatriation”, officials working overseas are warned that many forced marriage victims will be “extremely traumatised and frightened” by the time they arrive or flee to British embassies. Those seeking the protection of their Government “may have been held against their will for many months or years…may have been raped…Sometimes they will have risked their life to escape.”

But on the same page the guidelines also advise officials to try and recoup the costs of repatriating the same people back to Britain. “The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is obliged to ask the person or trusted friends to fund the cost of repatriation,” the report states.

On the following page, embassy officials are advised what to do if the victims cannot pay for their own return home. “The Forced Marriage Unit in very exceptional circumstances may provide a loan from public funds to help the victims return to the UK, but only when all other avenues have been exhausted,” the guidelines state. “The victim will have to sign an agreement to pay the loan in full and will have to secure the loan by giving up their passport.

Once the loan is repaid in full, the person’s passport will be returned.” Campaigners have attacked the guidelines, saying that forcing a deeply traumatised victim to pay for their own repatriation punishes them for something that happened outside of their control and risks pushing vulnerable victims back into the hands of the same families they have tried so hard to escape from. “It’s insensitive and outrageous,” said Jasvinder Sanghera, a forced marriage survivor who went on to found Derby-based charity Karma Nirvana, which runs the Honour Network.

“Imagine if you were a British woman forced into a marriage in Pakistan. You do everything you can to escape your parents and arrive at the High Commission in Islamabad utterly terrified. You’ll be in a complete state, possibly alone from your family for the first time in months and British officials are asking you to pay for your journey back home.”

Mrs Sanghera was keen to stress that much of the work carried out by the Forced Marriage Unit abroad should be praised and regularly saved people’s lives. But she says charging victims to be repatriated was unacceptable. “If the victim is under 16 the costs will normally be covered by their Local Authority,” she said. “But we have come across a number of older teenagers who have been repatriated and have then struggled to pay back the loan. Many have been tempted to return to their parents – the same parents who thought it was acceptable to marry them off against their will in the first place.”

The Forced Marriage Unit, which is run jointly by the Home Office and the Foreign Office, receives approximately 1,600 calls every year, 300 of which result in repatriation. Pakistan, Bangladesh and India are the most common countries for British women to be forcibly married abroad in and all the embassies have a dedicated team that specialise in locating victims.