‘Bogus brides’ and the paradox of control

So here’s a question for you. In globalised era characterised by inequality, conflict and degradation of land what do you think might happen if you set your immigration controls so that those who most want (and often indeed need) to move can’t?

The answer is that illicit, criminal markets specialising in (often dangerous) ways to get round controls will form. Regrettably lack of choice, tends to push migrants to engage these very services on offer- usually at highly exploitative rates.

It is precisely this phenomena that Richard Bilton explores in yesterday’s neutrally entitled  ‘My Big fat fake wedding’.  This was an supposed to be an investigative expose of ‘sham marriages’- the term refers to those marriages that are entered into for the purpose of avoiding the effects of immigration laws.

Incidence of  ‘sham marriages’

Bilton begins the programme by telling us in a tone that would frankly give the late Don Lafontaine a run for his money that he’s ‘been round the country looking at ‘marriages that are not what they seem….’

The result of Bilston’s ‘extensive investigation’ is to come up with one seemingly fake marriage between Ghazanfar Ali and Maria, and one other would- be participant in a fake marriage.

There’s also an interview with Father Godling who shows us his registry book. It contains lots of recent entries of marriages involving foreign and European nationals. He tells us that there was  an occasion when the police were alerted to a wedding he was conducting. They raided it and arrested the individuals.

Curiously, we’re never told whether anyone was charged and prosecuted following the above raid. Godling tells us there’s been an increase in the marriages he conducts from 10-30 per annum, and expresses general concerns about sham marriages but doesn’t explain why he didn’t alert the UKBA/ police more often.

Another interview takes place with a UKBA civil servant. This individual ‘left the UKBA on account of misconduct’ (and is in the process of fighting allegations). He goes on to suggest that the problem of sham marriage is far greater than it might seem. And we see interviews with a couple of superintendent registrars who indicate that ‘sham marriages’ are a problem.

Statistics on sham marriage

Not convinced Bilton’s dossier is the smoking gun he wants it to be? Well, Bilton goes on to produce statistics. He tells us that ‘the number of reported sham weddings has almost trebled in the last three years.’

But Bilton omits to tell us a few things. Firstly, he forgets to tell us that that these statistics relate to ‘suspected’ sham marriages that may be contracted for the purposes of circumventing immigration control’- not actual, sham marriages- marriages that have been investigated and found to be ‘fake.’ There’s a world of difference between the two.

Further, as fullfact.org points out, if statistical data is examined more fully, the overall picture that emerges is that reported suspicions about sham marriages actually fell by 73.9% since 2004. But Bilton doesn’t tell us about this either.

Getting the law wrong

Perhaps the above can be overlooked, but what about Bilton’s misleading and inaccurate statements such as:

‘one way to beat immigration controls is to get married. Marry anyone even a complete stranger with a British or European passport and you get to stay.’

As any immigration lawyer will tell you that this is quite simply nonsense. If you’re marrying a British/ settled citizen, you need to show that you fulfil certain demanding criteria. This includes a requirement to maintain and accommodate yourself without state assistance, a requirement to pass an English language test, and a requirement to show that your marriage is genuine, and you intend to live together as husband and wife. The number of genuine applications from loving couples that have been refused for want of meeting these requirements is pretty staggering, and worthy of a blog post in its own right.

And it’s not right to say that  ‘you get to stay’ if you do the above. If you fall into the above category, you may get to stay. Equally you may not. What actually happens is that you’re given a trial probationary status for two years. Once that period is about to expire you can apply to settle, but will subject to the above tests once again. The reality is that there are plenty of refusals also involving genuine, loving couples.

Either way, there are wide powers in immigration law to revoke and curtail immigration leave, and ultimately remove even settled people from the country if transpires at any point, that deception was employed in securing leave.

So far as marring EEA/Swiss nationals go, you’re given a 5 year residence document after which time you can, upon showing 5 years continuous residence apply to settle.

And in both cases, those who also involved in sham marriages can be prosecuted under criminal law for a range of associated offences – false information, deception, assisting unlawful immigration etc.

The wrong conclusion

Bilton is clearly wedded to the idea of the discredited, and unlawful Certificate of Approval (COA) scheme which is due to come to an end in shortly on the 9th of May this year.

The COA process requires those subject to immigration control and not in possession of settled status must apply for permission to marry/enter a civil partnership if their marriage is not a Church of England marriage.

The scheme was found by UK Courts to contravene both the human right to marry, and the right not to be discriminated against as contained in the European Convention on Human Rights – its effect in practice was to simply deny the right to marry to thousands of genuine and loving couples. In short, the Court rightly thought it was a sledge hammer to crack a nut.

Now, no one is suggesting in this blog that ‘sham marriages’ do not take place – they clearly do, though the extent remains open to question, and was not assisted by Bilton’s ‘investigation’. Nor is anyone suggesting that they are not undesirable. They clearly are, as they often involve criminality and exploitation. However, there are of course a wide range of potential policy solutions one might adopt to address this.

Bilton weirdly touches upon one  potential solution at the outset of the programme when he asserts that ‘sham marriages’ are one way of getting round what he acknowledges are ‘strict immigration controls’.

The logical extension of  the above of course, is that if strict controls are the source of the problem,  one option might be to re-examine our system of control with a view to relaxing it in order to accommodate human and global realities, but Bilton never comes to this.

Nor, in Biltons self-righteous spluttering fury about COAs does he ever quite explain what is wrong with the existing  legal framework as opposed to its enforcement (minus the COS scheme) in so far as ‘sham marriages’ are concerned.

So whilst this had the potential to be an informative, searching and educational investigation into marriages conducted to circumvent immigration controls, Bilton’s own pre-conceptions about the nature, incidence, and solutions to the problem constantly get in the way of any meaningful analysis. The immediate result is sloppy, inaccurate journalism which lacks intellectual rigour. The longer term results, judging from a quick read of the Daily Mail yesterday, are one suspects, worse.

About jcwi

Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants is a key campaigning voice in the field of immigration, asylum and nationality law and policy. It is completely independent from government funding, remaining entirely free from government influence. View all posts by jcwi

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