Jeremy Hunt 'investigating' Foreign Office making forced marriage victims pay rescue costs

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen

Jeremy Hunt has said he is investigating after it emerged the Foreign Office has made British women forced into marriages abroad pay hundreds of pounds for their own rescue.

The Foreign Secretary said Britain should always act with "compassion and humanity" after MPs from across politics attacked the policy of recouping the cost of helping citizens return home.

It came after The Times reported that victims have to either pay for plane tickets, basic food and shelter themselves or, if they are over 18, take out emergency loans with the department.

It prompted criticism, with one MP likening it to the Windrush scandal in showing how differently Britons from minorities are treated to their white counterparts.

Mr Hunt, who is in Singapore at the start of a three-day visit to Asia, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he wanted "to get to the bottom" of the issue.

He said: "I have asked officials to give me some proper advice on the whole issue on the basis of seeing this story.

"Any interventions that I have had on these consular matters I have always stressed to embassies and posts abroad that they need to use discretion.

"Of course we should always behave with compassion and humanity in every situation."

Jeremy Hunt said he is investigating the issue. Credit: PA

The Foreign Office, which jointly runs a Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) with the Home Office, said it has an obligation to recover money spent on repatriating victims when public money is involved, such as the cost of a flight back to the UK.

It is understood the women are not charged for staff costs and the department does not profit from the repatriations.

The department helped 27 victims of forced marriage return to the UK in 2017 and 55 in 2016, according to figures acquired by The Times under freedom of information laws.

In the past two years the Foreign Office has lent £7,765 to at least eight forced marriage victims who could not pay for their repatriation.

Around £3,000 has been repaid, although debts of more than £4,500 are outstanding.

Under Foreign Office terms and conditions a surcharge of 10% is added if an emergency loan is not repaid within six months.

In 2018 four young British women sent by their families to a "correctional school" in Somalia, where they were imprisoned and physically abused, were charged £740 each, the paper said.

Left destitute by the loans, two are living in refuges and two have become drug addicts since returning to the UK, they told the paper.

Tom Tugendhat, the Tory chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which monitors the work of the Foreign Office, said The Times report was "astonishing".

"(The committee) will ask questions about this decision to charge forced marriage victims to be rescued," he tweeted.

"(The Foreign Office) is rightly proud of the work the @FMUnit (forced marriages unit) does. They should be. But we shouldn't be charging the most vulnerable for their own protection or dissuading them from asking for it."

Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of the Home Affairs Committee, said she was "completely appalled".

"Forced marriage is slavery. For Govt to make victims pay for their freedom is immoral. Ministers need to put this right fast," she tweeted.

Fellow Labour MP David Lammy branded it "unconscionable", adding: "Just like the Windrush scandal yet more evidence of how differently this government is prepared to treat black or brown British citizens.

"A white woman who had been kidnapped, sold into slavery and raped would never have been asked to pay for her freedom."

The Foreign Office said it was a "world leader in the fight to tackle the brutal practice of forced marriage" through the FMU and provided funding for safe houses and non-governmental organisations overseas and in the UK.

A spokeswoman said on Wednesday that whenever it is asked to help people return to the UK it works with them to access their own funds, or help them contact friends, family or organisations that can cover the costs of repatriation.

She added: "In very exceptional circumstances, including in cases of forced marriage overseas, we can provide an emergency loan to help someone return home.

"We recognise that an emergency loan can help remove a distressed or vulnerable person from risk when they have no other options, but as they are from public funds we have an obligation to recover the money in due course."