Britain is failing victims of forced marriage, campaigners said on Wednesday, after the U.K. government pledged to investigate reports women were being charged to be rescued.
An investigation by Britain’s Times newspaper found adult victims were being made to pay for emergency repatriation, with those unable to cover the costs made to take out emergency loans.
A spokeswoman for Britain’s Foreign Office said the government had an “obligation to recover the money” as it came from public funds, while the foreign minister told BBC radio he would look into the issue.
But campaigners said the charges, which sometimes ran into hundreds of pounds, were indefensible.
“This charge is completely against the principles of helping the most vulnerable,” Aneeta Prem, founder of the Freedom charity which works against forced marriage, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Britain banned forced marriage in 2014, although there have only been two convictions since the law was passed.
The government’s Forced Marriage Unit received reports of nearly 2,000 possible cases last year, many involving girls from South Asian backgrounds, but campaigners say the figure is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Times investigation found that many of the 82 victims repatriated by the government between 2016 to 2017 were asked to pay for their own flights, food and shelter.
In 2018, it said, four young women who were imprisoned at a religious school in Somalia had to pay 740 pounds (US$936.10) each to return home.
The women, who had been threatened with forced marriage in Somalia, told the newspaper the charges had left them destitute. Two were living in refuges and two had become addicted to drugs since returning to Britain.
Pragna Patel, founder of Southall Black Sisters, a charity now helping a larger group of women and girls rescued from the school, called the charges “shocking”.
“These girls have been though appalling abuse and slavery — to force them to repay debts when they are destitute and in dire need of intensive support is to compound their trauma,” she said.
Gabriella Gillespie, a former child bride who now campaigns against forced marriage, said such charges meant many victims had to start their adult lives in debt.
Gillespie’s father sold her and her sisters as child brides in his native Yemen when she was 13.
When she fled her marriage 17 years later with her five children she was told she had to cover the repatriation costs for the entire family, amounting to thousands of pounds.
“I started my new life in debt to the government. They say they are going to give you your freedom back. But you are left struggling with nobody to turn to. Where are you going to get your money from?”
The Times said the government had given loans totalling 7,765 pounds (US$9,832) to at least eight victims in the past two years.
Their passports are confiscated until they repay the full amount and if they do not clear the loan within six months, a 10 percent surcharge is added, it said.
(Reporting by Isabelle Gerretsen @izzygerretsen; Editing by Claire Cozens.)
This story was produced by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, global land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, women’s rights, and climate change.