Women rescued from forced marriages made to pay for repatriation

Senior MPs condemn practice as ‘morally repugnant’ as Jeremy Hunt vows to look into reports

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
,Ryan Wilkinson
Wednesday 02 January 2019 11:42
Comments
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt says he will look into forced marriage scandal

Senior MPs have expressed outrage after it emerged that young women rescued by the Foreign Office from forced marriages had to pay hundreds of pounds for their repatriation.

Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt vowed to look into reports that victims have to pay for the price of plane tickets, basic food and shelter themselves or, if they are over 18, take out emergency loans with the department.

Politicians on all sides condemned the practice as “morally repugnant” and called for action after the figures were uncovered by The Times.

The Foreign Office said it has an obligation to recover money spent on repatriating victims when public money is involved, however the department does not profit from repatriations.

The department helped 27 victims of forced marriage return to the UK in 2017 and 55 in 2016, according to statistics acquired under freedom of information laws.

In the past two years the Foreign Office has lent £7,765 to at least eight forced marriage victims who could not pay for their repatriation.

Around £3,000 has been repaid, although debts of more than £4,500 are outstanding.

Theresa May has made combatting modern slavery one of her key priorities in office, once describing forced marriage as a “terrible practice” and a “tragedy for each and every victim”.

In August, Sajid Javid, the home secretary, said forced marriage was “despicable, inhumane [and] uncivilised” and vowed to “do more to combat it and support victims”.

Mr Hunt, speaking while on a trip to Singapore, said he had asked officials for “proper advice on the whole issue”.

“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,” he said.

“Of course we should always behave with compassion and humanity in every situation but I want to get to the bottom of this particular issue before I give a full answer.”

Under Foreign Office terms and conditions a surcharge of 10 per cent is added if an emergency loan is not repaid within six months.

In 2018 four young British women sent by their families to a “correctional school” in Somalia, where they were imprisoned and physically abused, were charged £740 each, the paper said.

Left destitute by the loans, two are living in refuges and two have become drug addicts since returning to the UK, they told the paper.

Tom Tugendhat, Tory chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has written to Mr Hunt, saying his committee was “deeply concerned” by the reports as he requested the Foreign Office publish all information on its charging policy.

He said: “Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee are deeply concerned that victims may be forced to pay for their own rescue or, worse, may be dissuaded from asking for help if they have not got the funds.

“I am sure you will agree that this issue must be addressed urgently and so I would be grateful if you could reply as soon as possible, and in any event no later than Friday 11 January.”

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said: “It is morally repugnant for the Foreign Office to charge British victims of forced marriage for the costs of bringing them home, and rank hypocrisy given the past statements made on this issue by the prime minister and home secretary.

“Dozens of the most vulnerable women in the most desperate circumstances have been penalised for turning to their government for help, and many more may have been put off from seeking that help because of the costs involved.

“The Foreign Office must immediately scrap these charges, and write off all outstanding debts owed by women brought home in recent years.”

Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Committee, said she was “completely appalled”.

“Forced marriage is slavery. For Govt to make victims pay for their freedom is immoral. Ministers need to put this right fast,” she tweeted.

The Foreign Office said that whenever it is asked to help people return to the UK it works with them to access their own funds, or help them contact friends, family or organisations that can cover the costs of repatriation.

“However, many of the victims who the Forced Marriage Unit help are vulnerable, and when offering any type of support their safety is our primary concern,” a 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 that 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.”

The Forced Marriage Unit also provides funding for safe houses and NGOs overseas and in the UK to help victims of forced marriage get to a place of safety as soon as possible.

“We do not charge British nationals for this service and work with organisations in the UK to support them on return,” the spokesperson said.

The Foreign Office said the UK is a “world leader in the fight to tackle the brutal practice of forced marriage, with our joint Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office Forced Marriage Unit leading efforts to combat it both at home and abroad”.

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