LONDON: The UK government came under fire today as it emerged that it had allowed many foreign nationals, including Indians, to enter the country despite concerns that they had forced women into marriage for a British visa.
An investigation by 'The Times' newspaper found that dozens of women who were sent overseas, to mostly South Asian countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to marry tried to block visas for their new husbands.
However, according to records uncovered by the newspaper, of the 88 cases in which victims wanted to block visas, 42 were still granted by the UK Home Office despite attempts to prevent them.
While charities working with victims of forced marriage have accused the government of "turning a blind eye" to the exploitation of British women, the UK Home Office "categorically denies" the allegation.
"Even when officials know it's a forced marriage, they see tradition, culture or religion and they're reticent to deal with it.
They are turning a blind eye," said Jasvinder Sanghera, herself a former forced marriage victim who set up Karma Nirvana as a charity to help other victims.
Laws making it illegal to force someone into marriage in England and Wales were introduced in 2014.
Anyone found guilty of the crime can be jailed for up to seven years.
There have so far been two cases of conviction under this law, including a Bangladeshi-origin couple who were jailed for a total of eight years for forcing their daughter into marriage with a first cousin and a British Pakistani mother being jailed for forcing her daughter to marry a relative almost twice her age earlier this year.
According to the UK government's Forced Marriage Unit (FMU), the four countries with the highest number of cases of British nationals being forced into a marriage against their will last year were Pakistan (439), Bangladesh (129), Somalia (91) and India (82).
As part of the latest 'Times' investigation, figures released under the UK's freedom of information laws showed the Home Office had received 175 inquiries about victims trying to block spouses' visas last year.
Of these, 88 became full cases, which included direct requests from victims known as "reluctant sponsors", requests from third parties or instances where an official suspected a forced marriage.
Visas were still issued in 42 cases, while in 10 more the decision is still pending or an appeal is being heard.
Charity workers have said that many of the victims are made to stay overseas until they become pregnant and returned to the UK to give birth because a child is believed to strengthen the foreign spouse's visa application.
Their husbands then apply to join them in the UK, using visas sponsored by the UK family.
Women can apply to block the visas but have to sign a public statement to the effect, something the charities warn results in many cases going unreported.
The Home Office said today that the UK was a world leader in tackling the "horrendous crime of forced marriage".
A spokesperson said: "We take our safeguarding responsibilities very seriously.
If an individual refuses to act as the sponsor for a visa application then under the immigration rules, that visa should not be issued.
"There are a number of reasons why cases are referred to the Forced Marriage Unit, not all of which are the result of a reluctant sponsor getting in contact.
In some cases it will be decided, following inquiries, that no further action is necessary and a visa will be issued.
" The Forced Marriage Unit brings together the UK's Home Office and Foreign Office to tackle cases forced marriages.
In 2017, the unit gave advice or support in 1,196 cases.
As well as a legal ban, British police also has the power to issue Forced Marriage Protection Orders to help potential victims.
Any breach of such an order is punishable by up to five years in prison.
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