By Ryan Wilkinson, Press Association
The Home Office has failed to protect British women and teenage girls forced into abusive marriages by granting their foreign husbands visas, charities have warned.
Officials dealt with nearly 90 cases of victims trying to block visas last year, although almost half were still issued, data obtained by The Times shows.
Women and girls are being physically and sexually abused by the men whose cases go unchallenged by authorities, charities say.
One group said some immigration officials were “turning a blind eye” amid concerns over cultural or religious sensitivities.
A Home Office source says it “categorically denies” the allegation.
Figures released under Freedom of Information laws showed the Home Office had received 175 inquiries about victims trying to block spouses’ visas last year.
Of these, 88 became full cases, which included direct requests from victims, known as “reluctant sponsors”, requests from third parties or instances where an official suspected a forced marriage.
The women had been forced to marry men in countries including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and the United Arab Emirates.
Visas were still issued in 42 cases, while in 10 more the decision is still pending or an appeal is being heard.
There are concerns that the actual number of victims is far higher than the reported cases due to rules that require complainants to sign a public statement.
Forced marriage victim support charity Karma Nirvana said it was being alerted to cases nationally.
Founder Jasvinder Sanghera told The Times: “Even when officials know it’s a forced marriage, they see tradition, culture or religion and they’re reticent to deal with it. They are turning a blind eye.”
Meanwhile, Aneeta Prem, founder of Freedom, which also supports victims, said it had seen “a number of cases like this and they go unchallenged”.
“The girls are physically and sexually abused by the men that come over,” she told the paper.
Laws making it illegal to force someone into marriage in England and Wales were introduced in 2014.
Anyone found guilty of doing so can be jailed for up to seven years.
As well as banning the practice, police were given powers to issue Forced Marriage Protection Orders to help protect victims, breaches of which are punishable by up to five years in prison.
Speaking at the time, Theresa May, then Home Secretary, said forced marriage was “a tragedy for each and every victim”.
In 2013, the year before laws were introduced, the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit gave advice or support related to a possible forced marriage to more than 1,300 people.
In 2017 the unit gave advice or support in 1,196 cases.
The Home Office said on Thursday that the UK was a world-leader in tackling the “horrendous crime of forced marriage”.
A spokeswoman said: “Work to combat it is an integral part of our cross-Government Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy, published in March 2016.
“We take our safeguarding responsibilities very seriously. If an individual refuses to act as the sponsor for a visa application then under the immigration rules, that visa should not be issued.
“There are a number of reasons why cases are referred to the forced marriage unit, not all of which are the result of a reluctant sponsor getting in contact. In some cases it will be decided, following enquiries, that no further action is necessary and a visa will be issued.”
Labour MP Naz Shah said the situation seemed “alarming”.
She told Sky News: “I certainly will be writing to the Home Secretary to make sure that we are looking at changing the law to protect the victims.”
Ms Shah added: “There is nothing racist about highlighting the fact that a girl is being forced into a marriage, or protecting that victim.
“Abuse is abuse regardless of any cultures, and that needs to be understood loudly and clearly.”