Select Committee on Foreign Affairs First Special Report


Memorandum submitted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on British nationals forced into marriage in Pakistan (30 June 2000)


  1.  Last year the FCO's posts saw over a 100 cases of young British nationals forced into marriage by their family.

  2.  The Government is determined to work with Britain's minority ethnic communities to end the practice of forced marriage, and to help its victims. The report by the Working Group on Forced Marriage set up by the Home Office is a key first step. The emphasis is rightly on the parents and communities in the UK.

  3.  But the overseas dimension is an integral part of the problem. The FCO has a key role to play in assisting the victims of forced marriage, and has made a clear commitment to do so. The FCO has launched a major programme of reform and activity to achieve this aim. The issue is a complex one, and there will be no easy answers.

  4.  The role of the FCO's entry clearance officers and the entry clearance process is a particularly difficult one, where the requirements of natural justice render impossible apparently obvious and simple solutions.

  5.  The Newsnight report from Mirpur on 31 May made a number of allegations about the British High Commission in Islamabad. These are answered individually.


  6.  Last year our posts saw over a 100 British nationals who told us they had been or were about to be forced into marriage by their families:

    —  Pakistan—76;

    —  Bangladesh—22; and

    —  India—9.

  7.  No cases came to our attention in other countries. The majority of these cases first come to the attention of our staff through the entry clearance process, when it becomes apparent that the sponsor of a settlement visa application is a reluctant spouse. A significant minority come to the FCO's attention as consular cases—

British nationals in distress requiring consular protection.

  8.  The majority of these victims, but not all of them, are women. Almost all claim to have been forced into marriage by their own families. In a few cases consent may have been given before the marriage which then turns out badly, and the victims feel he or she has acted under duress. In many of the cases, the victims have been tricked into going overseas by their families. They have been told they are visiting their grandparents, or going to a cousin's wedding. Victims tell of being held against their will, of being beaten or sexually abused.


  9.  The Government is determined to work with Britain's minority ethnic communities to end the practice of forced marriage. The lead, and the long-term solution, can only come from within those communities. The only lasting answer will be for those communities to make clear that the practice is wholly unacceptable. Many in those communities have already taken an impressive and public stand on the issue.

  10.  In August 1999 the Home Office established a Working Group on Forced Marriage to investigate the problem and make proposals for tackling it effectively, The Working Group was chaired by Baroness Uddin and Lord Ahmed, and brought together representatives from women's groups and other community organisations. The FCO, along with other government departments, attended the Working Group in an advisory capacity.

  11.  The Working Group published its report on 29 June 2000. A copy is appended to this Memorandum. The Working Group sets out a clear definition of forced marriage—"a marriage conducted without the valid consent of both parties, where duress is a factor." The report underlines the importance of clearly distinguishing forced marriage from arranged marriage; and of having an understanding of the motivation of parents.

  12.  This does not mean accepting there is any justification for denying the right to choose a marriage partner. But this is a complex matter with different perspectives. Among the factors mentioned to the Working Group were:

    —  peer group or family pressure;

    —  attempting to strengthen family links;

    —  protecting perceived cultural and religious ideals;

    —  preventing "unsuitable" relationships (eg outside ethnic, cultural, religious or caste groups);

    —  family honour;

    —  long-standing family commitments; and

    —  controlling female behaviour and sexuality.

  13.  While the focus has been the communities from the Indian Subcontinent, the Working Group heard of cases happening in the UK from African, Chinese and other communities (although these did not come to the attention of our posts because we believe all parties were in the UK). Victims came from all communities, which between them observed most of the major faiths—all of which condemn the practice of forced marriage.

  14.  The report sets out what the Government and others have to do to help the victims of forced marriage and stop the practice from continuing. It maps out a clear programme of work required. We welcome the report both as a clear sign of engagement and determination by Britain's minority communities to tackle the problem, and as the road map for future work.

  15.  The bulk of the report focuses on domestic concerns, and in particular on the role of parents, schools and the communities. This is entirely appropriate. The root of the problem, and therefore its solution, is in the UK.

  16.  But the overseas dimension is an integral part of the problem. Many of the forced marriages occur overseas, or involve a partner from overseas. The victims come from British communities with close links to the Subcontinent. Both in tackling the problem, and in helping the victims, the overseas link is crucial.


  17.  The FCO is determined to do everything it can to help the victims of forced marriage. In a speech (attachment 1) in Leeds on 3 March 2000 Baroness Scotland set out the FCO's broad strategy—working with the communities, being guided by them, building a network of partners in the UK and overseas, and constantly looking for creative ways to help victims.

  18.  In response to the Working Group's report, the FCO is preparing a joint Action Plan with the Home Office on tackling the overseas dimension of forced marriage. It sets out an ambitious programme of activity and reform—from establishing links between police forces in the UK and overseas to a more activist stance on the dual nationality of many of the victims of forced marriage.

  19.  Taken as whole, the Action Plan will represent a major step change in the FCO's work to help the victims of forced marriage. It will take at least two years to put in place the full range of measure being considered, but many of the reforms are already underway. A dedicated desk has been established in the FCO's Consular Division to co-ordinate the programme of activity, and a team set up bringing together expertise from all the relevant parts of the FCO.

  20.  The FCO needs to work with many others—inside and outside government—to provide the support that victims of forced marriage need. That is why such a high priority is being placed on the creation of a network of partners—within government; within the communities in the UK; and overseas.


  21.  Our High Commission in Islamabad already does a great deal to help the victims of forced marriage. In the past three months, its staff have successfully helped nine young British nationals, including one man, to return to the UK against the wishes of their own families. The nine included sisters who had already been helped to the UK once before, making it considerably harder the second time round.

  22.  The staff of the High Commission will go to great lengths to assist those victims of forced marriage that they hear about:

    —  as soon as they are contacted they will try to establish precise location and whether there are any friends or family willing to help;

    —  they will provide advice on the legal options open to the victims under Pakistani law, and put them in contact with local lawyers with relevant experience;

    —  if they can escape and travel safely, they advise the victims to get to the High Commission, where they can arrange safe houses, passports, and transfer of funds from the UK for flight tickets;

    —  they will help the victims leave Pakistan safely, by making secure arrangements at the airport, including use of special channels to avoid the normal check-in area;

    —  if the victims cannot escape, the High Commission's staff will explore other options, including liaison with Pakistani local authorities, human rights' organisations, and lawyers to secure the victim's safe release or appearance before a court; and

    —  the High Commission's staff will often attend court hearings themselves, and talk to the suspected victims in private to ascertain their true position and wishes.

  23.  In line with the new approach to forced marriage set out by Baroness Scotland in her 3 March speech, the High Commission has started to put in place a series of measures so that it can do more to help the victims of forced marriage, including:

    —  appointing a senior member of the locally-engaged staff to work full time on forced marriage cases;

    —  investing of a great deal of time in building a network of contacts, including with NGOs, senior police chiefs, District Commissioners, the MFA and the Ministry for Women's Development;

    —  securing agreement with the Ministry of Interior on ways to help the victims of force marriage that the High Commission cannot contact directly;

    —  liasing with other diplomatic missions in Islamabad to share contacts, experience and best practice in dealing with the issue; and

    —  contributing to the FCO/Home Office joint Action Plan on forced marriage.


  24.  Many of the forced marriages that happen overseas result in an application for a UK visa. The FCO and Home Office are making every effort to ensure that the victims of forced marriage are treated sensitively throughout the entry clearance process. A series of practical measures is being prepared that will improve the way these cases are handled.

  25.  But despite a great deal of effort and imagination, no solution has yet been found to the central dilemma forced marriages pose for the Entry Clearance Officers (ECOs), Victims of forced marriage will often tell the ECOs exactly what has happened. They will ask for their spouse's visa application to be refused. Some threaten suicide if the visa is granted. But in most cases they will not be prepared to say so publicly or in front of their families. The fear of the repercussions of confronting their families, and the shame that such a step would bring on their families, ensure that most victims would rather suffer in silence.

  26.  This makes it almost impossible for the entry clearance officer to refuse the visa application. If they do refuse the visa, then the refusal will normally be over-turned on appeal. The adjudicators in these appeals need—under the principles of natural justice—to state the reasons for their decisions. If they decide to up hold a refusal, then they need to declare why they have done so. And so if the victim is not prepared for their position to be stated publicly, it leaves the adjudicator little choice.

  27.  The problem is therefore not one of knowing when an application for a settlement visa involves a forced marriage, but of being able to use this information to reject the visa in a way which does not put the victim's life in danger. This is the reason why some of the apparently simple solutions for forced marriage cases—such as insisting that every UK sponsor is interviewed separately—would not actually solve the problem.

  28.  The emphasis has been placed on providing maximum support to the victims, so that they know that there is help available should they choose to confront their families.


  29.  The Newsnight report from Mirpur on 31 May, and the Independent article by Sue Lloyd-Roberts of the same day, made a number of specific comments and allegations about the British High Commission in Islamabad. To take each in turn:

The British Government should open a consular office in Mirpur

  30.  The High Commission recognises that it needs ways to help the victims of forced marriage held against their will in Mirpur (although there are also many cases outside Mirpur). It is aware that many of the victims cannot easily get to Islamabad. Many cannot even get outside the house in which they are being held. But it does not believe that opening an office in Mirpur would solve this problem.

  31.  The High Commission believes it would be a mistake to direct victims to an office in Mirpur. Recent victims have told High Commission staff that the aim should instead be to get victims out of Mirpur as fast as possible. If there were such an office, it is likely that many of the victims would be too scared to visit it:

    —  the office could become a target for demonstrations by the vocal and sometimes violent supporters of forced marriages;

    —  enormous pressure would be brought to bear on locally engaged staff to reveal details of any victims who found their way to the office; and

    —  families would know immediately where to go to find victims of forced marriage who had escaped, making both entry and exit from the office perilous. This could deter victims from going to such an office.

  32.  In addition, there are political sensitivities about opening a consular office in Mirpur because of the dispute surrounding Kashmir as a whole. There would also be serious security concerns for High Commission staff, in a country where security is already a major issue.

  33.  Instead of opening a consular office, the strategy has been to build up the High Commission's partners and contacts in Mirpur—including human rights activists, women's groups, lawyers and the local authorities. This will create a network of support allowing the High Commission to help victims more effectively. In addition, further regular visits by staff will help raise the profile of the High Commission in the region, and remind victims that they are a source of help.

Dual nationality is used as an excuse to avoid helping the victims

  34.  Dual nationality is a fact of international law, and the High Commission cannot unilaterally ignore it. Under Pakistani law (which HMG and the High Commission has to respect) British nationals of Pakistani descent are counted as Pakistani nationals—whether they like it or not, and even whether they know about it or not. This means that the High Commission has no right to demand they be treated as British nationals in Pakistan, or that they receive full consular rights under international law.

  35.  But the FCO recognises that a more imaginative approach to dual nationality might help to resolve the difficulty this presents in helping victims of forced marriage. It is in the process of writing clear revised internal guidance on dual nationality, that make clear that helping dual nationals who are the victims of forced marriage is not a secondary or informal task, but a key and formal objective. The guidance will make clear the legal limitations that dual nationality imposes on consular work, but emphasise that the objective should be to do as much as possible despite these limitations.

The case of Nazish

  36.  The Newsnight report included an interview with Nazish—a female victim of forced marriage who says that in mid-April 1999 a member of the High Commission's staff put the telephone down on her when he found out she had a Pakistani surname. As described, this would be completely unacceptable behaviour. The High Commission is keen to take this matter further. But the BBC have not been willing to pass on the Nazish's details, or any further information about the incident, making a proper enquiry impossible.

  37.  The High Commission is, however, confident, that if such an incident did occur it was not with a member of the consular section staff. They are all well aware of the sensitivity of these cases, and trained to take the full details of any victims that call. They would also have explained the difficulties that dual nationality present, but not in a way that leaves the victim feels no help is available. Staff will always advise victims to make their way to the High Commission.

  38.  It is possible that the incident is a result of the poor phone system in Pakistan. Lines get cut regularly, and this would be even more likely if Nazish was ringing from a public telephone. But whatever happened the incident is clearly regrettable, and all staff have been reminded of the need for care in dealing with phone enquiries from distressed callers.

The case of Koheema

  39.  The report also included the tragic case of Koheema, who had been forced into marriage against her will by her family to separate her from her legitimate husband in the UK. Staff in both the FCO and at the High Commission were surprised by the report's account of events, which almost entirely neglected to mention the role they played in the case, and instead played up the role of the BBC journalists. In particular:

    —  the report said "I...organised a day for her to turn up at the High Commission". The process of getting Koheema to the High Commission actually involved many parties, and followed a long planning meeting in the FCO in London at which the eventually successful strategy was suggested by a member of the FCO's staff;

    —  our staff spent two hours with Koheema when she came in to the High Commission, exploring with her all the options, and giving her the chance to speak to her real husband in the UK;

    —  following her appearance at the High Commission, our staff were instrumental in saving Koheema from a charge of bigamy, along with the West Yorkshire Police who used senior contacts in the Pakistani police; and

    —  the High Commission have since kept in close touch with Koheema and her family, and have monitored her welfare closely. She has now returned to the UK with her family, with considerable assistance from the consular staff at the High Commission.

Interviewing all sponsors of settlement applications would solve the problem

  40.  The majority of sponsors do not attend their spouse's entry clearance interview because they are not in the country. To insist that they be available for interview is not a viable proposition. Where the sponsor does attend, and it is suspected that they are the victims of a forced marriage, they are interviewed separately. As explained in Section E of this Memorandum, the problem is not one of knowing when a settlement application involves a victim of forced marriage, but being able to act on this information. The solution proposed in the Newsnight report—interviewing each sponsor separately—would not solve this problem.

The West Yorkshire Police did not raise the issue when they visited

  41.  The West Yorkshire police have asked the FCO to make clear that the issue of forced marriage was discussed with the police in Mirpur. The Mirpur police did in fact agree to assist in these cases—which is an impressive achievement, given the level of local support for forced marriages and the strong local feeling about "honour".

  42.  The FCO has used working links established by the West Yorkshire Police on several occasions to good effect, and values highly the trail-blazing work that the force has done in forging contacts with their Pakistani counterparts. The FCO will be working with the Police Service in Britain to set up a wider programme of co-operation between British police forces and their opposite numbers in the Subcontinent.

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Prepared 9 January 2001