By Ben Kerrigan-
Mps have slammed the British Foreign Office for charging victims of forced marriages to repay loans used for their rescue.
The Foreign Office was branded “morally repugnant” by Mps who have come out in attack against the practise that has left many victims financially destitute.
Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said Britain should always act with “compassion and humanity” after MPs criticised the practice of the British Government in connection with the limited help on offer in helping citizens return home. An investigation by The Times Newspaper revealed the pressure on victims to pay for their plane ticket, food and shelter themselves if they are under 18. Victims over 18 can take out emergency loans from the government.
The investigation found that women who have taken out loans have had their passports cancelled, and were told they cannot get a new one until the debt is repaid. Many of the 82 victims of forced marriage repatriated in 2016-17 had to pay for living costs incurred between making distress calls and returning home, as well as their airfare, while others received loans from the Foreign Office.
They were also forced to give up their passports as a condition of the loan until they repaid the debt, with a surcharge added to unpaid bills after six months. A surcharge of 10% added to the costs of repayments where the emergency loans are not repaid within six months has further alarmed many members of the public aware of the state of affairs.
The Times Newspaper reported how four young British women imprisoned and tortured at a “correctional” religious school in Somalia ahead of expected forced marriages told the Times they each had to pay £740 to return home, where the burden of the loans allegedly contributed towards them becoming destitute.
Pragna Patel, the founder of Southall Black Sisters, a charity that helps women escape from forced marriages, told the Times: “These are vulnerable young women who have been taken abroad through no fault of their own and forced into slavery, and yet they are being asked to pay for their protection. It can’t be right. Protecting victims from forced marriage must be seen as a fundamental right and not a profit-making business.”
Mr Hunt, said from Singapore where he begins a three-day visit to Asia, that he wanted “to get to the bottom” of the issue.
“We must always behave with compassion and humanity and look at these situations on an individual basis,” he said.
“The important thing to say here is we are very good at getting these girls and women home after the terrible ordeal of a forced marriage.
“We’re known for the fact we have this huge diplomatic network around the world that is very, very good at helping Brits in distress and situations like this.”
The situation is not straightforward to assess because if everybody who found themselves in such an awful situation were to receive hundred percent financial assistance, such availability of assistance would be open to abuse. Abuse in the sense of some people faking victimisation. Where it can be confirmed without a doubt that a brit has been subjected to kidnap or encountered a situation that prevents them from escaping, it would certainly be repugnant to get them to pay. Intervention from the British Foreign Office will rightly be expected, at a cost which should be imposed through international law on the perpetrators.
The Foreign Office helped 27 victims of forced marriage return to the UK in 2017 and 55 in 2016, according to figures quoted by the newspaper. In the past two years, the Foreign Office has lent £7,765 to at least eight women and about £4,500 is still outstanding. British Mps reacted to news that victims of forced marriages were made to pay the costs of their return to the UK was met with anger from some MPs, with one likening it to the Windrush scandal.
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said: “It is morally repugnant for the Foreign Office to charge British victims of forced marriage for the costs of bringing them home, and rank hypocrisy given the past statements made on this issue by the prime minister and home secretary.
“Dozens of the most vulnerable women in the most desperate circumstances have been penalised for turning to their government for help, and many more may have been put off from seeking that help because of the costs involved.
“The Foreign Office must immediately scrap these charges, and write off all outstanding debts owed by women brought home in recent years.”
Tom Tugendhat, the Tory chairman of the foreign affairs select committee said The Times report was “astonishing” and that questions would be asked. He said that while the Foreign office is “rightly proud” for the work it does on the issue, “we shouldn’t be charging the most vulnerable for their own protection or dissuading them from asking for it”.
Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of the home affairs committee, added: “Forced marriage is slavery. For the government to make victims pay for their freedom is immoral. Ministers need to put this right fast.” Labour MP David Lammy got stuck into the argument, adding a racial element to it. He it was “unconscionable”, adding: “Just like the Windrush scandal yet more evidence of how differently this government is prepared to treat black or brown British citizens.
“A white woman who had been kidnapped, sold into slavery and raped would never have been asked to pay for her freedom.”
The Foreign Office has resisted the criticisms, saying it has an obligation to recover money spent on repatriating victims when public money is involved, such as the cost of a flight back to the UK. The Foreign Office will have a legitimate point if the victims would have had to fly back to the Uk with or without such incidents in those countries, but where victims have only had to fly back because of a threat to their safety, the Foreign Office would be bad A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “We recognise that an emergency loan can help 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.