Senior MPs have demanded answers after it emerged the Foreign Office has made British women forced into marriages abroad pay hundreds of pounds for their own rescue.
Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the Commons foreign affairs committee, said he was “deeply concerned” by the revelations as he called on Jeremy Hunt to publish all information on the FCO’s charging policy.
The British Foreign Secretary, 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.”
His comments 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.
Mr Tugendhat, in a letter to Mr Hunt, said: “Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee are deeply concerned that victims may be forced to pay for their own rescue or, worse, may be dissuaded from asking for help if they have not got the funds.
“I am sure you will agree that this issue must be addressed urgently and so I would be grateful if you could reply as soon as possible, and in any event no later than Friday January 11.”
Mr Tugendhat called on the FCO to publish the data on the number of women charged in the last five years, the average charges and more details around the loan agreements reached between women and the FCO.
He also requested information on the FCO’s charging policy in general and what other services the FCO charge for.
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.
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.”
- Press Association