Make no mistake: Forced marriage is slavery.
But a recent investigation found that women rescued by the British government were sometimes charged a hefty fee for their freedom.
If survivors could not afford the flight home, the Foreign Office would provide a loan that would rise with surcharges if they couldn’t afford to pay it. Activists and politicians alike were outraged by the revelation — and urged the government to change its policy.
The Times revealed that the Foreign Office helped 27 forced marriage survivors return to the UK in 2017, and 55 in 2016. Although most had the loans paid back by others, the department loaned £7,765 to at least eight forced marriage victims who needed financial support — with over £4,500 still owed to the government.
The women would then have to give up their passports until the loan was repaid. If it wasn’t settled within six months, the survivors were charged 10% extra in interest.
But Jeremy Hunt, the UK’s foreign secretary, has now pledged to scrap the payments for good.
Since 2016, Forced Marriage Unit @FMUnit has rescued over 100 people from deplorable situations overseas. These victims are exceptionally vulnerable & face particular suffering. I have decided they will no longer be asked to take out a loan to return home to the UK https://t.co/lrb8kAdjhv— Jeremy Hunt (@Jeremy_Hunt) January 10, 2019
Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign office select committee, wrote to Hunt on Jan. 2 following outrage at the exposé in the Times, warning that the threat of debt might dissuade victims of forced marriage from asking for help.
“From now none of those who are assisted by the forced marriage unit will have to cover the costs of their repatriation,” Hunt said on Wednesday. “Where possible, the government will continue to seek to ensure the costs fall on the perpetrators by means of the forced marriage protection orders.”
Survivors will incur no further cost, and passports will be returned to them immediately. However, loan payments already made will not be refunded.
VICTORY! About time, this is what I call change. Excellent journalism & being victim centred👍🏼.Jeremy Hunt scraps repatriation fees for forced marriage victims after Times report | News | The Times https://t.co/29gLnEPGmk— Jas Sanghera CBE (@Jas_Sanghera_KN) January 9, 2019
The government already abolished the fees for 16- and 17-year-olds in March 2017 — but, despite the insistence of campaigners, left them in place for anybody older than 18.
Now it appears that the government will cover costs for all survivors.
In 2017 there were 1,196 cases of possible forced marriage reported to the UK’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU), of which one-third were under the age of 18. Karma Nirvana, a charity that supports survivors, also released findings that the number of women sent abroad for it increased by one-third in 2018.
However, it’s highly likely that there are far more victims than reported. Last year, the Home Office described forced marriage as a “hidden crime” — and said that the published data “may not reflect the full scale of the abuse.”