LONDON (AFP) – Britain on Wednesday announced it would immediately end its policy of asking women rescued from forced marriages abroad to take out loans to cover the cost of helping them, following a backlash.
The practice came to light last week with reports that four British women who were freed from a punishment institution in Somalia were each charged £740 ($940, 820 euros).
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt revealed on Wednesday that “after careful consideration, I have decided that victims of forced marriage helped to return to the UK… will no longer be asked to take out a loan for their repatriation costs.
“Our treatment of vulnerable Britons abroad should always be guided by compassion, so I am glad to make this policy change,” he added, in a letter sent to Tom Tugendhat, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Victims were reportedly told they had to fund their flight back to Britain, basic food and shelter costs.
Those who were aged over 18 and could not pay had to sign emergency loan agreements with the Foreign Office.
The ministry helped bring back 55 forced marriage victims in 2016 and 27 in 2017.
The four young women who were found in a “correctional school” in Somalia had been sent to the religious institution by their families and reported being chained to the walls and whipped with hosepipes.
Some had their legs shackled, spent days locked in a small box, were burned with hot sticks and forced to sit in their own urine unless they accepted a forced marriage, The Times said.
The Foreign Office and the Home Office interior ministry run the Forced Marriage Unit, which from 2009 to 2017 gave advice or support to nearly 12,800 people.
Since 2014, forced marriage has been a crime in Britain carrying a maximum seven-year prison sentence.
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.
News of the charges prompted criticism.
Yvette Cooper, who chairs parliament’s Home Affairs Committee which scrutinises the interior ministry’s work, said she was “completely appalled”.