How effective is enforcement action against sham marriage?

August 30, 2019

  • Reports by registrars of suspected sham marriages witnessed a fivefold increase over the past decade
  • Annual grants of EEA family permits – identified by the former Chief Inspector of Borders as an area of 'significant attempted abuse' with regard to sham and proxy marriages - have more than doubled since 2010
  • The government should provide more information on the effectiveness of recent enforcement action

A Migration Watch UK paper (MW466 - How effective is enforcement action against sham marriage?) highlights the ongoing problem of sham marriage and calls for updates on the effectiveness of recent enforcement action.

Statistics point to a 41% rise in reports by registrars of suspected sham marriages, from 2,038 in 2014 to 2,868 in 2018. There has been a fivefold increase in the annual number of such reports since 2009 (when the total was 561).

It is unclear how effective enforcement action has been, particularly in light of recent suggestions by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders that efforts to tackle illegal immigration have been ‘operationally' and 'psychologically’ impacted following the Windrush Affair.

Separately, the number of EEA family permits issued each year has more than doubled over the past decade, from 18,300 in the year to March 2010 to 44,800 in the year to March 2019.

While the recent increase may be associated with a last-minute effort prior to Brexit to beat future changes in the immigration rules, the longer-term trend may be linked to the persisting problem of sham marriage. We would welcome clarification on this point.

The government has said that this EU pathway is the ‘route of choice’ for those seeking to frustrate UK immigration control.

In 2014, the former Chief Inspector of Borders pointed to sham marriage as a ‘significant’ and ‘increasing threat to immigration control’. A Home Office official described sham marriage as akin to a ‘golden ticket’ because it can allow a non-EU national who benefits from it a chance to stay here permanently and also to bring in extended family.

Among a range of proposals, the Migration Watch UK paper recommends closing the loophole which allows the issuing of visas to foreign nationals on the basis of overseas proxy marriages, at which participants do not even need to be present.

The government has said that such cases can be linked with identity fraud and ‘highlight the ease with which an EU citizen may… unwittingly "sponsor" a non-EU national to reside in the UK without their knowledge’. The former Independent Chief Inspector of Borders found that four-fifths (83%) of a sample of proxy marriages were invalid.

However, efforts by the Government to tackle sham marriages have been hindered by a range of administrative issues, communication gaps between departments, and, crucially, by the fact that enforcement action often fails to result in the removal of offenders.

Indeed, in a sample of non-EEA nationals who were refused residence cards, there was a barrier to removal action in nearly three-quarters (72%) of the cases.

Meanwhile, spending on immigration enforcement in 2018/19 was £462 million – about a twentieth of one percent of total government spending in that year and nearly £2 million less than was spent in 2015/16.

A large increase in the funding available for enforcement is necessary. We make a number of additional recommendations, including:

  • Improvement of safeguards and enforcement measures against ‘golden ticket’ sham marriages.
  • More effective removal of those refused EEA Residence Cards.
  • The closing of loopholes which allow for the recognition of proxy (and polygamous) marriages in the UK.
  • Stronger efforts to tackle the problem of illegal forced marriages.

The paper also calls for a wider communication effort by the government and oversight bodies, such as the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration and the National Audit Office, to update the public about the scale of this ongoing problem.

Commenting, Alp Mehmet, Chairman of Migration Watch UK, said:

Efforts to circumvent immigration control via bogus weddings are unacceptable and those who engage in and aid this practice must face the consequences. The problem of sham marriage is seemingly growing, while the public is kept in the dark on what action has been taken to tackle it. It is time to be more open with people.

Note to Editors

  • It should be noted that an unknown share of EEA family permits will be issued for non-EEA national family members of EEA nationals other than spouses or civil partners. Unfortunately the HO do not publish a breakdown of the number of EEA family permits issued by type.
  • Statistics on the number of annual reports by registrars of suspected sham marriage are derived from Home Office evidence to Parliament, which includes a table on reports of suspected sham marriage (table 5) as well as the results of a Freedom of Information request by The Guardian, published April 2019. The table below summarises the data. Some cells are blank because data is not readily available for that particular year.
Year Section 24 report received from registrars annually
2008 344
2009 561
2010 934
2011 1,741
2012 1,891
2014 2,038
2018 2,868

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