Sham marriages can be big business, attracting would-be immigrants who want to circumvent asylum rules to stay in a country. That's why Britain earlier this year brought in new rules to clamp down on the practice. But critics say genuine couples, too, have been caught out by the new rules. And they're joining forces with other couples facing separation to campaign for the right to stay together in the United Kingdom.
Prague, 30 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In the late 1990s, Nawzad Ashad Kader got caught up in fighting between northern Iraq's rival Kurdish groups
After a brief stint in jail, he hid on a farm for two months in fear of his life. He then began a perilous journey to Europe made by thousands of immigrants each year:
"I paid some money, nearly $2,300 to the Turkish mafia. They put me in [different] lorries two, three times at nighttime and I don't know where I am. [There was] no food, nothing, they just gave a bottle of water and some biscuits. [I was] 15 or 16 days in the lorry. Then I came here to England and at the time I don’t know what country [I'm in]," Kader tells RFE/RL.
Nawzad claimed asylum after he arrived in 2000 and learned English. Then, earlier this year, he met a British woman, Suzanne. They got engaged and planned to marry next year.
But there won't be any wedding. That's because Nawzad's asylum claim was refused two years ago. He's been told his case is closed, and he faces deportation.
"[We've been together] eight or 9 months, we're now living together. I want to marry but how can I marry? In this country, in Liverpool, how can I marry? There's no way," Kader says.
Nawzad and his fiancee are caught out by new marriage rules that came into force in February.
Now, most non-European Union nationals who want to marry in Britain need one of two things -- a special visa, or a certificate of approval from Britain's Home Office that shows they have a right to be in the country. The rules are designed to tackle sham marriages, where would-be immigrants wed strangers just in order to stay in the United Kingdom.
Registrar Mark Rimmer has worked with the government in tackling bogus marriages. He estimates that up to one in five of all registry marriages in the capital London were bogus before the new rules came into force:
"Certainly they were extremely common, particularly in London and the larger conurbations. We estimated there were at least 8,000 to 10,000 [sham] marriages a year in London alone, about 20 percent of all the marriages in London. Since 1 February when the new laws came into place, we've seen drops in many areas of up to 50 percent of all the marriages. It has just been absolutely incredible, the impact," Rimmer says.
But Suzanne and Nawzad say their relationship is genuine and that they face an impossible dilemma -- separation, or uprooting to a country both regard as dangerous. They've now joined forces with other couples facing separation to launch the "Brides without Borders" campaign on 3 October.
Suzanne says these are people engaged -- or even married -- to failed asylum seekers who face deportation to countries such as Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. "We're asking the Home Office to honor Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which is the right to family life, remaining with our partners in a safe country," she says.
Critics -- including immigrant welfare groups -- also say the new rules on marriage are discriminatory. But others say they are justified.
Professor Ryszard Piotrowicz, an asylum and migration expert at the University of Wales, tells RFE/RL: "I think they are defendable…there's no doubt there's a real problem of sham marriages in the U.K. I think it can actually be justified as long as there are safeguards in there which as far as possible, ensure that genuine cases [marriages] are allowed."
Registrar Rimmer acknowledges that, unfortunately, some genuine couples may get caught out. But he says this is a price that had to be paid to put a stop to the huge abuse that was taking place.
Couples like Suzanne and Nawzad say that, for them, that price is too high.