By Sonia Elks
LONDON, Jan 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - British women saved from forced marriage abroad will no longer have to repay the government for the cost of their rescue, the foreign minister said on Wednesday, after a public outcry.
Women's rights campaigners reacted angrily to revelations in the Times newspaper last week that the government was charging adult victims for emergency repatriation, with those unable to cover the cost of their journey made to take out a loan.
"From now on, none of those who are assisted by the Forced Marriage Unit – and would previously have been offered a loan – will have to cover the costs of their repatriation," wrote Jeremy Hunt, the foreign minister, announcing the change.
"Our treatment of vulnerable Britons abroad should always be guided by compassion. So I am glad to make this policy change."
He said those who had already taken out loans would face no further charges and blocks put on their passports pending full repayment would be removed.
Britain banned forced marriage in 2014, although there have only been two convictions since the law was passed.
The government's Forced Marriage Unit received reports of nearly 2,000 possible cases last year, many involving girls from South Asian backgrounds, but campaigners say that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Charities working to tackle forced marriage welcomed the change, but said victims should never have had to pay for their freedom.
"I'm absolutely delighted," Jasvinder Sanghera, the founder of charity Karma Nirvana, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The shame is it took a newspaper investigation to be in this position – it's not something the government didn't know about a long time ago.
"What I hope is that this really does put a spotlight on the issue of forced marriage and ... government trying to think about a plan towards pursuing prosecutions for these perpetrators."
The Times' investigation found some of the 82 victims repatriated by the British government between 2016 and 2017 were told to pay for their own flights, food and shelter.
Victims' passports were confiscated until the loan had been repaid in full and a 10 percent surcharge was added if it had not been cleared within six months, it reported.
Four young women who were imprisoned at a religious school in Somalia had to pay 740 pounds ($945) each in 2017, it said.
The women, who had been threatened with forced marriage in Somalia, told the newspaper the charges had left them destitute. ($1 = 0.7830 pounds) (Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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