Bogus marriages to gain residency in the UK have reached “an epic scale,” consuls heard at a briefing by a senior registrar, who appealed to them to work with local councils to clamp down on a multi-million pound illegal industry.
Speaking at a Consular Corps lunch, Mark Rimmer, Superintendent Registrar at Brent Council, said: “Sham marriages are not like the movie Green Card; this is multinational organised crime on a grand scale.”
A sham marriage occurs when a non-EU national marries someone from the European Economic Area as a means of gaining long-term residency in the UK.
Mr Rimmer, who works in the most multi-cultural borough in Britain, said that in Brent alone around 300 suspected fake marriages were reported to the Home Office annually.
The nationalities involved typically included women from Central Europe and men from South Asia, West and North Africa.
Mr Rimmer explained that criminal gangs preferred bogus marriages with EU nationals because UK legislation requires the non-UK spouses of British nationals to serve a ‘probationary period’ of five years before they can apply for indefinite leave to remain, whereas no such restrictions apply for EU nationals.
Increasingly marriages are being organised by prostitution rackets and involve trafficked women who are sold into sham marriages as an additional source of income.
Laws introduced in 2004 to curb sham marriages required non-EU nationals to apply for a Certificate of Approval to qualify for marriage. In its first year there were 25,000 fewer marriages in the UK. But the law was challenged on human rights grounds and had to be ripped up.
“Then the floodgates really opened,” said Rimmer. “It’s open season now.”
Tackling the problem will require new legislation to deter those considering using marriage as a way to avoid immigration controls.
One proposal on the table is to increase the notice that a non-EU national has to give to UK Visas and Immigration of their intention to marry from 14 to 28 days. If UKVI has any suspicions, the Home Office may be able to extend the period to 70 days to investigate.
Consuls, who often perform marriage ceremonies, expressed frustration that they were unable to find a contact person within the Home Office to report suspected sham marriages.
For those consuls registering marriages, Mr Rimmer admitted that certificates submitted by couples were no guarantee that the marriages were genuine.
One police liaison officer reported instances where their nationals were committing bigamy and urged the registrars to notify missions about their citizens’ intentions to marry so that they could make their own checks.
But Britain’s decentralised system does not currently permit the sharing of information.
“It’s a loophole. It’s hoped the new laws will allow the sharing of information between registration services, the Home Office and consulates,” said Mr Rimmer.