By GRAHAME ANDERSON
The Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is investigating claims British women forced into marriages abroad pay hundreds of pounds to be rescued. The controversy emerged yet again at the start of his three day visit to Asia, following a Times newspaper investigation. They’ve claimed the Foreign Office has loaned £7,765 to at least eight women with around £4,500 outstanding after they were charged £740 each. Two are now living in a refuge while two more have become drug addicts since returning to the UK. Asian Sunday has learned the Foreign Office has helped more than 80 victims of forced marriage exit their plight in the past two years alone. It also seems individuals have to fork out for plane tickets, food and shelter themselves, or if over the age of 18, apply to the department for an emergency loan to cover costs.
Under Foreign Office terms and conditions a 10 per cent surcharge is added if an emergency loan isn’t repaid within six months.
Wanting to get to the bottom of the issue Mr Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We must always behave with compassion and humanity and look at these situations on an individual basis.
“The important thing to say here is we are very good at getting these girls and women home after the terrible ordeal of a forced marriage.
“We’re known for the fact we have this huge diplomatic network around the world that is very, very good at helping Brits in distress and situations like this.”
In response to the claims Emily Thornberry MP, Shadow Foreign Secretary, 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, chairwoman of the Home Affairs Committee, said she was “completely appalled”.
Avoiding Another Scandal
Mr Hunt however, seems determined to look closely at the problem in the hope of avoiding another ‘Windrush’ type scandal on behalf of an already heavily pressurised government. He added: “I have asked officials to give me some proper advice on the whole issue on the basis of seeing this story.
“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.
“Of course we should always behave with compassion and humanity in every situation.”
A Foreign Office 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 Foreign Office jointly supervises a Forced Marriage Unit or FMU along side the Home Office. They remain proud of the work carried out with the aim of defeating the horror of forcing someone to marry against their will. It did maintain however, it has an obligation to recover money spent on repatriating victims when public money is involved, such as the cost of a flight back to the UK.
Anup Manota, Operations Manager for Karma Nirvana, a British human rights charity set up to support male and female victims of honour-based abuse, forced marriage and disownment, told me:
“No victim that needs protection should have to fund their safety, we are talking about victims of rape, kidnap, abduction etc, even the most hardened criminals in UK are protected at the tax payers purse! These are victims and we have a duty to protect them.
“We suggest Home Office and FCO seriously consider talking to each other, in order to seek prosecutions and these monies from those who put victims in this position.”
Tom Tugendhat, the Tory chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, tweeted: “(The committee) will ask questions about this decision to charge forced marriage victims to be rescued.
Asian Sunday understands the women are not charged for staff costs and the department does not profit from the repatriations.