Thousands of couples hoping to tie the knot are being wrongly subjected to “humiliating” months-long investigations by the Home Office on suspicion of entering into “sham marriages”.
The checks often involve couples being hauled into immigration centres and grilled separately about the details of their relationship.
Registry offices flagged 107,432 cases to the government between 2016 and 2022. But records obtained by openDemocracy show only 1.2% (1,319) were actually found to be sham marriages.
Experts have warned the system is just another example of the Home Office’s “hostile environment” and say the automated system it uses to triage referrals could be discriminatory.
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Most (92,000) of the cases flagged to the Home Office were scanned and dropped within the 28-day wait period for a marriage licence – either manually or, since 2019, by the algorithm-driven tool. But 15,000 cases were “extended” for ten weeks and handed to officials at immigration reporting centres for investigation.
The data, obtained under freedom of information laws, shows 2,400 of the people investigated were detained for suspected immigration offences.
In total, 2,211 people were deported following a registry office referral. This is more than the number of cases deemed to be sham marriages, suggesting many of the people investigated were found to have committed other immigration offences.
Daniel Sohege, director of the migrants’ rights consultancy Stand For All, said: “As the Home Office’s own figures show, the majority of marriages are genuine. Yet the Home Office continues to treat migrants as if they are criminals, and in so doing puts them through humiliating and intrusive investigations into their personal lives; investigations that would have many of us up in arms should they be done to us.
“Such claims have seen innocent people put through hell as they have fought to defend their right to be married to the person they care about.”
Legal charity the Public Law Project (PLP) has launched legal action over what it labelled a “secretive and potentially discriminatory algorithm”. It has found that a marriage involving at least one Albanian national is almost twice as likely to be investigated by the Home Office compared to the next highest nationality – Bangladeshi. This is despite the Home Office agreeing to ensure there is a “human in the loop” to prevent systemic discrimination.
The algorithm has eight “risk factors”, including the age difference between the couple and shared travel history. The full list of criteria is not known, and the PLP is fighting a separate legal battle for it to be disclosed.
“When one particular nationality is far more likely to be subject to a sham marriage investigation than others, there is a clear risk that discrimination is at play,” PLP’s legal director Carla Clarke said. “But until the Home Office agrees to be open about how its algorithm works, it is impossible to fully know if the system is operating lawfully or not.”
Referrals and investigations
Registrars have been required since 2015 to report couples to the Home Office if they suspect that they may be marrying to obtain an advantage in immigration proceedings.
Couples who face investigation are often interviewed at reporting centres, though the grilling can also take place in detention centres, during visits to a couple’s home or at the registry office.
In one case, a couple arranged to get married in May 2015 at Lambeth registry office in south London. The registry office had notified the Home Office in February that it suspected the couple of engaging in a sham marriage.
Immigration enforcement officers waited to intervene until the day of the wedding, questioning both before detaining the groom and arranging for his removal back to Bolivia on the grounds that he did not have the right to stay in the UK.
In another instance, a couple in their 50s who had been together for a decade were accused of engaging in a sham marriage and spent years challenging the Home Office’s decision. During the drawn-out legal process, Jeff Rose, a Canadian citizen, was not allowed to work. The Home Office apologised to the couple after they won their case at an immigration tribunal in March 2019.
The concept of sham marriages is used as a “tool to demonise people seeking sanctuary in the UK,” according to Julia Tinsley-Kent, policy manager at the charity Migrants’ Rights Network.
“Yet the facts speak for themselves,” she added. “Once again, the government has scapegoated sanctuary seekers in order to justify increased surveillance against them. We must resist the government’s harmful narratives, and the proliferation of immigration enforcement into all areas of daily life.”
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “As the public rightly expects, we take abuse of the spouse, fiancé and partner immigration routes very seriously. We will not hesitate to take enforcement action against individuals found to be in a sham marriage or civil partnership including cancelling their leave and removing them from the UK.”