Some of the new rules on UK marriage visas are specifically designed to reduce the number of forced marriages. In particular, to obtain a UK marriage visa:
- Both the applicant and their spouse or proposed spouse or civil partner must be aged at least 21; and,
- The applicant and proposed spouse must have met each other.
The age requirement was raised from 18 to 21 in 2008 because a large proportion of the victims of forced marriages are under 21. In addition, anyone bringing a spouse to the UK should already have established themselves as an independent adult so that they can properly help their new spouse become settled in the UK.
The Definition of Forced Marriage
A forced marriage is any marriage where at least one party to the marriage does not freely consent. They may have been forced through coercion or duress ranging from emotional pressure to the threat of, or actual, physical violence. In English law a marriage is not valid unless both parties freely consent to it. In the UK forced marriages are considered to be a form of domestic abuse – or child abuse, if they involve a minor.
Forced marriages are not the same as arranged marriages where friends or family suggest someone who they think is a suitable partner. As long as both parties are free to choose whether to accept the proposed partner any subsequent marriage should be valid.
UK Efforts to Combat Forced Marriages
The UK government has been developing a series of changes to the marriage visa rules as part of an ongoing commitment to reducing the number of forced marriages involving British residents or citizens. In 2009 a code of practice was introduced to help those working in immigration to identify and protect potential victims of forced marriages.
The Forced Marriage Unit
In 2005 the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) was set up by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in collaboration with the Home Office. The FMU has a number of functions. It:
- Helps victims of forced marriage;
- Helps those who are facing the threat of a forced marriage;
- Gives advice to professionals dealing with cases of forced marriage; and,
- Works with the government to develop policies on forced marriage.
If an immigration official suspects that they may be dealing with a forced marriage case they can contact the FMU for advice on how to proceed.
The FMU can also give support and information to the victims of forced marriage. Further, anyone who suspects that a forced marriage may take place can report it to the FMU. In some cases the FMU may even be able to arrange the rescue of a British citizen or resident who has been taken abroad to be forced into marriage.
Proposed Changes to Marriage Visa Requirements
In addition to introducing a code of practice for immigration officers, further changes to the marriage visa requirements have also been suggested. These include a proposal that marriage visa applicants should have to satisfy an English language requirement. Amongst other things, this is intended to prevent foreign nationals, who come to the UK after a forced marriage, being isolated and unable to get help due to an inability to communicate.
Under the proposed changes British citizens or residents who leave the UK to get married may be required to give notice of this intention before leaving the UK. This would address the problem of people who go abroad with no idea that they are to be forced into a marriage whilst they are away.
Foreign nationals who have been granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK could lose this right if they are found to have abused the marriage visa system.
Protection for Victims – Forced Marriage Protection Orders
In November 2008 the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 came into force. Under this Act an application can be made to the High Court in London and to some County Courts for a Forced Marriage Protection Order. These Orders are designed to protect people who are threatened with a forced marriage or who have already been forced into marriage.
An application for a Forced Marriage Protection Order can be made by a party to the marriage or by a third party. The Order can direct that people involved in the forced marriage change their behaviour to stop the marriage from going ahead or to protect someone who has already been forced into a marriage. If the people named in the Order ignore it, or break its terms, they could face up to two years in prison.