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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 January 2019

UK forces kidnapped brides to repay airfares

Government comes under fire over repayment contracts for vulnerable women

A Yazidi girl, 15, captured by ISIS and forcibly married to a militant in Syria, sits on the floor of a one-room house she now shares with her family. AP
A Yazidi girl, 15, captured by ISIS and forcibly married to a militant in Syria, sits on the floor of a one-room house she now shares with her family. AP

The UK government has told young women sent abroad for forced marriages to repay hundreds of pounds for the cost of rescuing them.

Senior politicians said the policy was immoral. The government said it would investigate.

Britain helped to rescue 82 women from forced marriages between 2016 and 2017. Those unable to pay for flights home, food and shelter are told to sign emergency loan agreements before they are allowed to board aircraft.

This agreement states that they will not be able to get passports and any failure to repay the loan “may result in legal proceedings to recover money owed”, according to a letter obtained by The Times.

Some of the women said the charges had left them destitute and forced them to use loans to repay the debt. The revelations prompted anger from women’s rights groups and politicians who called on the government to end the practice.

“Forced marriage is slavery,” tweeted Labour MP Yvette Cooper. “Ministers need to put this right fast.”

The government was also criticised by one of its own MPs, Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, who said he would question ministers about the affair.

“We shouldn’t be charging the most vulnerable for their own protection or dissuading them from asking for it,” Mr Tugendhat wrote.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who arrived yesterday in Singapore, said UK embassies and consulates should “always behave with compassion and humanity in every situation”, but declined to comment further before investigating the claims.

Figures obtained under Freedom of Information requests suggested that the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office lent £7,765 (Dh36,000) to at least eight victims of forced marriage who needed the money to return to the UK.

They have repaid about £3,000 of that amount, the figures showed. The contract they signed stated that unpaid sums would incur a 10 per cent surcharge after six months.

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Those repatriated included four young British women who were found last year at a secure “correctional school” in Somalia, where they had been chained to walls and told they would be forced to wed.

Each of the women was charged £740 after one of the 25 women held there managed to escape and get help, The Times reported. Two of them are living in refuges while another two had drug problems.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office said that women were asked to pay only in “very exceptional” circumstances.

“We recognise that an emergency loan can help to 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,” a spokeswoman said.

The government’s Forced Marriage Unit was set up in 2015 and was involved in 1,200 to 1,400 possible cases between 2012 and 2016.

It has handled cases related to more than 90 countries, figures released last year showed, with the largest number in 2017 related to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia and India.

In about one in ten cases, the potential or actual forced marriage took place in the UK with no overseas link.

Updated: January 2, 2019 06:56 PM

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