For most people, there are few things that evoke a more reassuring sense of warmth, comfort, stability, and safety than home. For most, home is a bastion of cocooned unconditional love and support. At home, we tend to have more freedom, more time for family and, for a few hours, we are able to do pretty much as we wish. But that’s not the case for victims of forced marriages, where the home is anything but a refuge.
Recent reports that the Foreign Office has been forcing these women to pay back the costs of their own rescue have put their tortuous plight under the spotlight.
As a survivor of a forced marriage, I understand full well how families abuse their position of trust over time, slowly and strategically eroding your independence and freedom. You start to normalise this as your present, your destiny, your duty. You accept it out of love for a mother and father, or to protect other sisters from the same fate.
Many families employ manipulative tactics to coerce and deceive their daughters into supposed “holidays abroad”. This is when the nightmare really begins to unfold. Imagine being taken away to a foreign country to be married off to a stranger. Imagine being tortured both mentally and physically until you are so worn down that you give into the demands of your family – the same family that has raised you since you were a child, yet who are now aiding and abetting your forced marriage.
As a good wife, you are expected to consummate the marriage. As there is no consent to the marriage, any sexual activity is de facto rape. Try to imagine having to come to terms with this proposition for the rest of your life. The reality for many of these British women is they most often find themselves deserted abroad, under the watchful eyes of likeminded family and community members.
The Foreign Office’s Forced Marriage Unit is internationally credited for its work, assisting 1,196 cases in 2018. The repatriation of British citizens is without doubt a task that requires careful and precise planning, and must also be credited. However, The Times investigation revealed the plight of many who, at this critical and vulnerable point in their lives, are informed of the Foreign Office’s duty to recover the money for the repatriation from the victim.
In this vulnerable state, the victim signs a government loan contract – after all, what is the alternative – understanding that if it is not paid within six months, there will be a 10% surcharge and, by the way, your passport will be confiscated until it is paid.
These are not victims who had a choice, they didn’t go to their local travel agent and book two weeks in the sun, overspending their resources on a jolly and expecting the good old British taxpayer to foot the bill. They are victims of crime at the hands of the very people who should have loved and protected them. For any victim to report abuse it takes courage, but multiply this many fold in these cases where victims have to take a stand against their own families, knowing full well that the consequences are stacking up by the second. There is a very real risk to their lives. They are faced with losing their entire family, as was my experience, possibly for a lifetime. They suffer feelings of grief that go beyond the loss we feel when someone we love dies – this a grief experienced from trauma. All of this while being made to believe that you were the perpetrator of your family’s shame. It is you that have dishonoured your family.
I speak from experience as a person who fled a forced marriage, I once lived as what I now describe as ‘a dead person walking.’ I would move between feeling suicidal, to immense anger and then being consumed with guilt, as if I had done this to my family. They still held the power.
In the immediate aftermath of escaping and being rescued, victims will experience a rush of emotions, including feelings of being in hyper alert mode, not knowing what life will be like now, and real fears related to what your family will do next.
The Foreign Office’s practice disregards the trauma experienced by victims and their need for support in the aftermath and needs to be scrapped immediately. As a taxpayer, I do not agree that anyone should have to pay to be protected. What I do expect is for the perpetrators of crime to be held to account. They are the ones who put these victims in this position.
Forced marriage remains a criminal offence, despite there only having been two criminal convictions since 2014 in England. The Home Office and Foreign Office should be talking and devising a strategy to recover the cost from those that placed the victims at risk and follow these lines of enquiry in the public interest.