Publication Author:The Independent
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Civil rights campaigners say hundreds of young women are being tricked abroad, mainly to Pakistan, where they are married and forced to live in remote villages. Women's groups have set up several new refuges to cope with the numbers seeking help and new identities.
Police say they have even come across "bounty hunters", men paid thousands of pounds by Muslim families to hunt down their daughters and help smuggle them to Pakistan.
The increase in forced marriages has two causes. Firstly, a growing number of second-generation Muslim girls are refusing to conform to their traditional roles and demand the right to choose their own husbands. And secondly, more women are used to obtain residence permits for family members or friends living abroad.
Home Office figures show that the number of Pakistani men using their wife's status to gain entry to Britain has more than doubled from 1,740 in 1995 to 3,510 last year.
The biggest rise came after the new Labour government, in one of its first measures last year, simplified the procedures for a British person wanting to bring their spouse to settle in Britain. They abandoned the hated "Primary Purpose Rule," which made consular staff rule on whether the main purpose of the marriage was to gain entry into the UK before issuing a visa.
In February last year, before the rules were changed, the High Commission in Islamabad, Pakistan, issued 255 visas to spouses. This year it issued 1,132, nearly five times as many.
Critics say the result is a flourishing trade in forced marriages, with British-born and educated women spirited abroad to lives of misery married to men they have never met. Often, they are virtual prisoners in remote villages.
Those that return to Britain while their new spouses apply for visas - which take about two months to process - often beg the Foreign Office to reject their husband's application.
'We've received 440 such letters in the past year,' said a member of the High Commission in Islamabad. 'More arrive each day. But there's nothing we can do unless the woman is prepared to go public.'
Women's groups and MPs last night called on the Government to provide more support for Asian women.
Margaret Hodge, Labour MP for Barking, has asked Baroness Symons, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, to intervene in the case of a constituent's girlfriend who vanished after what he fears was a forced marriage. She said the Foreign Office gave her the impression they would not help.
'The suspicion is that it isn't just a matter of culture which is influencing the Foreign Office but one of race.'
However, Baroness Symons, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, said the government unequivocally condemned the practice of forced marriage. 'You have a basic human right not to be forced into marriage. But this mustn't be confused with arranged marriages.
However, she rejected calls for embassies abroad to intervene to help British-Asian women forced into marriages. "They are not quasi-policemen who are able to go out and find people who have gone missing," she said.
In Bradford, a police-backed scheme - similar to a witness protection programme - helps women change identities, find new homes and encourages employers to erase them from personnel records and find them new jobs.
Jahangir Mohammed, deputy leader of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, said: 'There are problems in a tiny minority of marriages and perhaps they are increasing, but to force anyone into a marriage is totally un-Islamic.
'These are difficult times for the Muslim community. We see problems with crime and drugs for the first time, but we believe these are linked to unemployment brought on by racism against Muslims.
'The unemployment rate among Muslim graduates is 60 per cent. That is a much bigger problem to be dealt with.'
Some women's groups say the increase of Pakistani men entering Britain using their wife as a sponsor reflects a failure by British officials in Islamabad to check if marriages are wanted or enforced.
Hannana Siddiqui of the Southall Black Sisters women's group: 'The British government could and should be doing more and their failure to act to help Asian women who are kidnapped and taken abroad to be married is basically racist.
'They are saying 'we have to be sensitive and not criticise other cultures' but in doing that they are allowing violations of women's human rights to continue.'
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