British women sent overseas by their families for forced marriages are being asked by the UK Foreign Office to pay back their rescue costs, according to an investigation by the UK’s Times newspaper.
Victims are in some cases being forced to pay back hundreds of pounds for airfares, food and shelter, in a move criticized by politicians and rights groups.
The Foreign Office said in a statement to CNN that as the rescue costs were from “public funds” it had an “obligation to recover the money in due course.”
In 2017, the Foreign Office helped 27 victims of forced marriages return to the UK, and 55 victims in 2016, according to figures obtained by the Times in a Freedom of Information request.
The report added that over the past two years, the Foreign Office has lent £7,765 ($9,900) to at least eight victims.
Roughly £3,000 ($3,825) of this has been repaid — with debts of more than £4,500 ($5,738) remaining.
A 10% surcharge is also added to emergency loans not repaid within six months, under Foreign Office terms and conditions.
Among the victims helped in 2018 were several young British women sent by their families to Somalia, where they were physically abused, the Times said.
Four of the women told the paper they were charged £740 ($940) each by the Foreign Office and were left all but destitute by the costs.
Tom Tugendhat, the head of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which scrutinizes government foreign policy, said the report was “astonishing,” adding that the committee would be asking questions about the decision to charge forced marriage victims to be rescued.
“We shouldn’t be charging the most vulnerable for their own protection or dissuading them from asking for it,” he said in a tweet.
Meanwhile, Yvette Cooper, a member of Parliament for the opposition Labour Party, said she was “completely appalled” by the findings.
“Forced marriage is slavery,” Cooper said in a tweet. “For Govt to make victims pay for their freedom is immoral. Ministers need to put this right fast.”
Pragna Patel, a founding member of Southall Black Sisters, a charity that helps empower Asian and African-Caribbean women, said that “it can’t be right” that “vulnerable young women who have been taken abroad through no fault of their own and forced into slavery” were being “asked to pay for their protection.”
In August last year, Home Secretary Sajid Javid pledged to do more to combat forced marriages and support victims.
“Those who force British women into marriage, be warned that we are redoubling our efforts to make sure you pay for your crimes,” he said at the time.
The Foreign Office said in a statement that when “people contact us for help to return to the UK, we work with them to access their own funds, or help them contact friends, family or organizations that can cover the costs of returning.”
But in “very exceptional circumstances” — such as forced marriages overseas — the Foreign Office will also “provide an emergency loan to help someone return home.”
The department’s Forced Marriage Unit also provides funding for safe houses and NGOs overseas and in the UK to “ensure victims of forced marriage can get to a place of safety as soon as possible,” it said. “We do not charge British nationals for this service,” the office added.