The chair of Muslim Women’s Network is urging the government to scrap its policy on billing Britons for being repatriated to the UK after escaping a forced marriage abroad.
Shaista Gohir is set to meet with representatives from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) next month, after she wrote to them expressing her concern that vulnerable and often young victims of the crime are ordered to repay the costs of travelling back to the UK.
The move follows the case of a 17-year-old who arrived at the UK High Commission in Islamabad seeking help to escape a forced marriage in 2014.
Gohir is helping the teenager who signed a loan agreement and was later billed £814 to return home. She also had to surrender her passport before she was flown back to the UK, which has still not been returned as she has not paid the money.
Several donors have offered to pay off the teenager’s debts after her case was highlighted in a newspaper report. Gohir has also raised concerns that a loan was given to a person under the age of 18.
A spokesperson from the FCO said they would be reviewing the policy on issuing emergency loans, including the age at which they are given to British nationals.
Gohir said she wanted the FCO to get rid of its policy altogether, and was concerned about the other victims who had not contacted the charity for help.
“It’s really wrong. It’s an embarrassment for them (the FCO) that tax payers have come forward and said we want to pay her debt,” she told Eastern Eye.
“What the government are saying is: ‘Why should tax payers cover travel expenses?’ We are saying: ‘Why not?’ They are a victim of crime and we should cover it from tax payers’ money.
“They are putting forced marriage victims in the same category as a tourist abroad who doesn’t have travel insurance and had an accident, can’t get back to the UK and is charged to return. But you can’t protect yourself from forced marriage through insurance,” she added.
The campaigner, who lobbies the government on issues relating to Muslim women, explained that many victims of forced marriage were under the age of 25 and unlikely to have the funds to repay repatriation costs.
Forced marriage was criminalised in 2014 in England and Wales by Theresa May, who was then the home secretary.
The practice carries a maximum seven-year jail term under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Breaching a Forced Marriage Protection Orders, which is available to protect those at risk, and may include forbidding a person to be taken overseas or ordering they be returned to the UK, was also criminalised.
The FCO’s guide on providing support to British Nationals Abroad states: “We can try to help a victim of forced marriage return to the UK, if that is what they want. If possible, we may also try to find them temporary accommodation in the country they are in.
“However the FCO is not funded to provide financial assistance and we cannot pay bills, including for repatriation. We may be able to provide an emergency loan from public funds to help someone return home, but this is discretion-ary and will only be considered in very exceptional circumstances… If a British national is eligible, they will have to sign an ‘undertaking to repay’ agreement, where they agree to repay the loan.”