Page last updated at 08:24 GMT, Friday, 24 July 2009 09:24 UK

Enforced marriage law forces couple apart

By Meirion Jones
BBC Newsnight

Rochelle talks about her feeling of helplessness at facing deportation

Nineteen-year-old Canadian Rochelle Wallis married her Welsh husband Adam in November 2008, two years after they first met and fell in love.

But now Rochelle is about to be deported from the UK and has been told that she will not be able to come back to see Adam until she is 21.

She has become the first unintended victim of changes to UK immigration laws which were designed to protect young British Asian women from being subjected to forced marriages.

In a letter to Adam's MP, Mark Williams, to whom the couple turned for help, the UK Border Agency described Rochelle being forced out of the country for the next year and a half as just an "inconvenience".

I think it is a horrific case - government policy that starts out with good intentions, but a blanket approach that nets in the most innocent of people.
Mark Williams MP

But Rochelle sees it differently: "It's more than an inconvenience, he's ripping my marriage apart - he's taking the only thing I have and throwing it away."

Mr Williams says the couple's plight is an example of what happens when a blanket government policy is applied to a specific issue:

"I think it is a horrific case - government policy that starts out with good intentions, but a blanket approach that nets in the most innocent of people."

Photographs lost

Adam and Rochelle first met in Canada two years ago and then kept in touch on the internet until she came to visit Adam in his home near Aberystwyth in March last year.

Rochelle had a six-month visa and only intended to stay a month, but the couple fell in love and decided to get married and stay in Wales.

Forced Marriage Unit poster
The government says the benefits of the changes outweigh the drawbacks

They applied for permission to marry from the Home Office a month before her visa ran out.

However, the authorities lost their passport photographs causing delays and when permission did finally come through it was with just a week to go before her visa expired.

The couple were not able to organise a wedding in less than a week, but they did get married a few weeks later and then sent in the forms applying for Rochelle to stay.

However, Rochelle had technically over-stayed her visa.

Adam and Rochelle were caught in a Catch 22 - or rather a Catch 21.

She would have had to have gone to Canada and applied for a spousal visa and then come straight back in.

A genuine marriage

But four days after their marriage, new immigration rules were brought in to stop forced marriages, which meant that if Rochelle left the country she would not be allowed to return until she was 21.

Although they had married with the permission of the Home Office and no-one disputed it was a genuine marriage, and certainly no-one claimed it was a forced marriage, Rochelle still faced being sent into exile for 18 months.

Couples who are genuinely married without any issue of force being involved are falling foul of the immigration rules - the Forced Marriages Act was never intended to frustrate their marriages
Leading barrister Khatun Sapnara

The UK Border Agency wrote: "This may cause the couple some inconvenience", but that they had increased the minimum age for spousal visas to 21 to reduce the chance of "forced marriages".

After the Forced Marriages Act was passed in 2007, the Home Office commissioned independent research from the University of Bristol to look into the effects of raising the minimum age to marry foreigners to 21.

The researchers asked victims of forced marriages - and the organisations which have campaigned on their behalf - whether they thought it would be a good idea.

Only one in six said yes.

The majority thought that the risks would outweigh the benefits and they specifically highlighted the "human rights implications" of "the impact on marriages entered into... by mutual consent."

But the Home Office, having commissioned the research, ignored it and brought in the new regulations which have caught out Adam and Rochelle.

'No exception'

Leading barrister and part-time judge Khatun Sapnara helped draft the Forced Marriages Act.

It was an important human rights measure intended to prevent thousands of young British women from mainly Asian backgrounds being forced into marriages against their will in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

But she believes the Home Office's decision to raise the age was a mistake: "Couples who are genuinely married without any issue of force being involved are falling foul of the immigration rules - the Forced Marriages Act was never intended to frustrate their marriages."

It's insane. We can go anywhere except my home country, where we got married, and where they gave us permission to get married."
Adam Wallis

She is shocked at what has happened to Adam and Rochelle and called on the authorities "to look again" at their case and "exercise discretion".

The UK Border Agency say "the couple's situation is not a compelling enough reason for an exception to be made in this case".

But Adam and Rochelle do have one chance - they can move to any other European Union country and they will be allowed to live together as man and wife and get work.

The only place they cannot is Adam's home - Britain.

"It's insane", he says. "We can go anywhere except my home country, where we got married, and where they gave us permission to get married."

When asked about the case a Home Office spokesman told Newsnight:

"Rochelle Roberts was refused permission to remain as a spouse because she came as a visitor and remained here illegally after her visa expired.

The immigration rules are clear that those people who arrive as visitors and those that remain here illegally cannot remain in the United Kingdom as a spouse. Rochelle Roberts' age was not the reason her application was refused.

"As a measure to protect young people from being pressurised into sponsoring a spouse from overseas, we have raised the age for sponsorship for a marriage visa from 18 to 21.

"We considered carefully whether an increase in age from 18-21 would be proportionate in light of concerns that raising the age might discriminate against specific religious communities and could penalise genuine couples. Overall we believe there are various benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

"Forced marriage leads to victims suffering years of physical and mental abuse and - in extreme cases - unlawful imprisonment and rape.

It has no place in our society. That is why the Government is determined to do everything it can to stamp it out and to ensure that victims receive the help and support they need."

Watch Rochelle and Adam's story in fullon Newsnight on Thursday 23 July 2009 at 10.30pm on BBC Two, then afterwards on the Newsnight website.



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