In the Media

The forced marriage law was simply symbolic | Rahila Gupta

PUBLISHED October 13, 2011

With good reason, the supreme court has declared unlawful a ban on under-21-year-old spouses coming to the UK That pesky article 8 of the European convention on human rights was at it again ? undermining the government's attempt to tighten the immigration screws. The supreme court has decided, in the Quila and Bibi case , that the government's ban on non-EU spouses under the age of 21 from entering the country was an unlawful interference into the couples' right to family life. A 17-year-old British citizen who fell in love with a Chilean national, Quila, and Bibi, a Pakistani woman who had an arranged marriage with a British national, won their appeal. Southall Black Sisters (SBS) had intervened in this case arguing that the age policy, instead of being an effective deterrent, was a disproportionate response to the problem of forced marriage . The judiciary, at least, has been able to keep the government in check even though it gets regularly misrepresented, as we saw in Theresa May's breathtaking distortion of the story of the asylum seeker whose deportation was apparently halted because of a pet cat under the right to a family life . Though the Conservatives attempt to paint the last government as having had an immigration policy that was out of control, New Labour was in fact so tough on immigration that it left little slack for Cameron. In his recent speech on immigration to the Institute for Government he said he hoped that tackling forced marriage, among other "abuses", would help bring down numbers. If Cameron is hoping to cut migrant numbers from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands, then he is looking in the wrong place. The numbers don't add up. The Forced Marriage Unit received approximately 1,700 enquiries in 2010, of which there were 469 actual cases, not all of them with an overseas dimension or involving an overseas spouse. The number of protection orders to prevent a person from being forcibly married issued under the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 since November 2008 is a mere 339. SBS believes that forced marriage is being used, "in a cynical way to create a moral panic to justify the government's immigration agenda". Women's organisations believe this act is working well. In the three years since the act came into force, there have been only five breaches of these orders. In Scotland where they do have a power of arrest attached to the breach of protection orders, it has never been used. So Cameron wishes to make the criminalisation of these breaches a key part of his new policy to tackle forced marriage? Hasn't he got the urgent work of making his plan B for the British economy look like plan A? Cameron also announced his intention to consult on making forced marriage a criminal offence, although not much has changed since the previous consultation under Labour where expert opinion was broadly opposed to it. Several criminal remedies are already available for specific offences such as assault, harassment, abduction or false imprisonment which might be committed in the process of forcing someone to get married. Forced marriage should be treated as a crime, just like domestic violence is, and just as there is no single criminal offence of domestic violence, only a range of behaviours which are criminal offences, there is no need for a specific criminal offence of forced marriage. Of course, legislation is sometimes enacted for symbolic reasons, to act as a deterrent, but in this case it would undermine its very purpose ? the protection of young women who want to escape their fates without criminalising their parents. Recently SBS has had to provide expert reports in a couple of cases where women applied to have even protection orders lifted because they were standing in the way of family reunion. But at least that process allowed relevant experts to review the situation to see whether the women were indeed out of danger. Female genital mutilation is a criminal offence, yet there have been no prosecutions despite anecdotal evidence that young girls continue to be mutilated. Symbolic laws introduced by the Tories, who have otherwise shown no interest in human rights, amount to just more posturing. Forced marriage Human Rights Act Human rights European court of human rights Immigration and asylum Crime Women Rahila Gupta © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds