Young women rescued by the foreign office after being sent abroad for forced marriages found themselves having to pay hundreds of pounds for costs from their return home, it has emerged.
Victims have to either pay for the price of plane tickets, basic food and shelter themselves or, if they are over 18, take out emergency loans with the department, The Times newspaper has reported.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid has called for a renewed focus on forced marriage following the news.
He told reporters: “I know the Foreign Office is taking this issue very seriously indeed and I think the Foreign Secretary has spoken about it this morning.
“I think first of all the Foreign Office (staff) working with the Home Office is doing an incredible amount to combat forced marriage and we’ll always be looking to see what more we can do.
“With this news it’s something again for us to focus on and make sure we’re doing everything we can.”
The practice of making the women pay for the costs of their repatriation has been criticised by MPs, including heads of the influential foreign and home affairs committees.
The foreign office said that 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.
Speaking from Singapore, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “We need to behave with compassion and humanity in every situation,” added that he has asked officials to look into the matter.
It is understood the women are not charged for staff costs and the department does not profit from the repatriations.
The department helped 27 victims of forced marriage return to the UK in 2017 and 55 in 2016, according to figures acquired by The Times under freedom of information laws.
In the past two years the foreign office has lent £7,765 to at least eight forced marriage victims who could not pay for their repatriation.
Around £3,000 has been repaid, although debts of more than £4,500 are outstanding.
Under foreign office terms and conditions a surcharge of 10% is added if an emergency loan is not repaid within six months.
In 2018 four young British women sent by their families to a “correctional school” in Somalia, where they were imprisoned and physically abused, were charged £740 each, the newspaper said.
Left destitute by the loans, two are living in refuges and two have become drug addicts since returning to the UK, they told the paper.
Tom Tugendhat, the Tory chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, which monitors the work of the foreign office, said the Times’ report was “astonishing”.
“(The committee) will ask questions about this decision to charge forced marriage victims to be rescued,” he tweeted.
“(The foreign office) is rightly proud of the work the @FMUnit (forced marriages unit) does. They should be. But 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, said she was “completely appalled”.
“Forced marriage is slavery. For Govt to make victims pay for their freedom is immoral. Ministers need to put this right fast,” she tweeted.
The prime minister once described forced marriage as a “terrible practice” and a “tragedy for each and every victim”.
In August Home Secretary Sajid Javid said forced marriage was “despicable, inhumane (and) uncivilised” and vowed to “do more to combat it and support victims”.
The foreign office said on Wednesday that whenever it is asked to help people return to the UK it works with them to access their own funds, or help them contact friends, family or organisations that can cover the costs of repatriation.
“However, many of the victims who the forced marriage unit (FMU) help are vulnerable, and when offering any type of support their safety is our primary concern,” a spokeswoman said.
“In very exceptional circumstances, including in cases of forced marriage overseas, we can provide an emergency loan to help someone return home.
“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.”
The FMU also provides funding for safe houses and NGOs overseas and in the UK to help victims of forced marriage get to a place of safety as soon as possible.
“We do not charge British nationals for this service and work with organisations in the UK to support them on return,” the spokeswoman said.
The foreign office said the UK is a “world-leader in the fight to tackle the brutal practice of forced marriage, with our joint home office and foreign and commonwealth office forced marriage unit leading efforts to combat it both at home and abroad”.