Earlier this week, provisions of the Civil Registration (Amendment) Act 2014 came into effect which, essentially, turn marriage registrars into immigration agents. Henceforth, non-EU nationals who wish to marry in Ireland must give the registrar evidence of their immigration status. If the registrar suspects that it is to be a marriage of convenience – defined in the statute as where at least one of the parties enters it “solely for the purpose of securing an immigration advantage” (I’ll come back to this later) – then the registrar now has the power to demand all sorts of personal information from the parties. If you want to see the full list of factors deemed relevant to this consideration, scroll about halfway down this page. If the registrar and their superintendent decide that yes, this would be a marriage of convenience, then they are obliged to refuse to register the marriage, and report the couple to the Minister for Justice.
The Minister issued a press statement in which she welcomed the new rules, presenting so-called “sham marriage” as a violence against women issue:
A non EEA national coming to the end of his immigration permission or without any immigration permission can contract a sham marriage with an EU national to extend their permission. Women are exploited in such arrangements and even if money changes hands there is obviously scope for coercion and intimidation.
I am also deeply concerned that in some instances women may be trafficked to Ireland with a view to being forced into sham marriages.
Continuing this theme the next day, the Irish Examiner reported:
In 2013 the Council of Europe asked Ireland to amend the law to include sham marriages as a form of exploitation and give gardaí powers to intervene in such cases.
It was estimated that 400 women were being trafficked into Ireland to take part in such ceremonies. Many of these came from Latvia, which complained about the situation under Irish law.
That statistic was patent BS, but even so, I wondered where it originally came from. Googling only threw up an earlier Examiner article with the even more ludicrous claim of 400 trafficked per year. Needless to say, the actual Council of Europe reports said nothing of the sort, so I took to Twitter to see if anyone had any clue:
— Wendy Lyon (@wendylyon) August 20, 2015
— Wendy Lyon (@wendylyon) August 20, 2015
— Wendy Lyon (@wendylyon) August 20, 2015
Sure enough, the Twitter hivemind soon came to the rescue:
— Dublin Inquirer (@DublinInquirer) August 20, 2015
And to my complete non-surprise, what the 400 figure at the source link actually comes from is this line:
Latvian police estimate that last year up to 400 Latvian women took part in sham marriages with Asian men in Ireland.
If this sounds tediously familiar, it’s because exactly the same process is responsible for some of the more absurd “sex trafficking” claims, such as the one about Finland having 40,000 victims per year (the source for which is an Interpol report, not online, which estimated that around that many women visit Finland each year to voluntarily sell sex). But such wild numbers are even dafter for this alleged form of trafficking, because there’s a really key difference: the women are coming to Ireland to take part in a regulated activity, one that already has a substantial degree of government oversight.
You wouldn’t know this from the Minister’s press statement, or pretty much any of its media coverage. The ordinary reader would assume that Inga and Ali can just fly into Dublin Airport, go straight to the Civil Registration Office, and then head for GNIB to register his Irish green card. And, furthermore, that there’s nothing anyone can do about it (or could do about it, until these new measures saved the day).
The truth is there’s actually a lot more involved in getting Irish residency as the spouse of an EU citizen. Leaving aside the issue of having to get to Ireland in the first place, first they have to go through Irish marriage registration procedures. This means booking an appointment with a registrar (usually at some delay), gathering all the documentation the registrar will ask for (if Ali doesn’t already have a PPS number, he’s in for a lot of fun trying to get one) – and even once all these preliminaries are done, they still have to wait three months to actually get married. Only then can Ali apply for EU-Fam residency, and only if Inga is actually exercising her EU Treaty rights in Ireland (which usually means working). They have to complete and jointly sign the application form, submit their original passports and a pile of other documents to INIS, and then wait up to six months for a decision. Just before the final decision is made, INIS will usually ask them to submit up-to-date evidence of their cohabitation and Inga’s employment. So all told, we’re looking at probably around a minimum nine months – after the agreement to get married – before Ali’s residency is secured. And even then, it’s not really secure: he’ll lose it if Inga leaves the State, stops working or goes for a quickie divorce in Latvia before three years are up.
It’s a procedure that just doesn’t easily lend itself to human trafficking. It takes too long, and the “victim” would have too many opportunities to raise the alarm. That’s not to say it doesn’t ever happen, but it really doesn’t seem like it would pass the “worth the hassle” test for many people. Especially if it’s true, as is alleged, that there are thousands of EU national women all too willing to pocket the cash and keep up the façade voluntarily.
What’s also being missed is that the registrars and INIS already have powers to deal with any such cases that arise. While it is not, as far as I can tell, specifically set out in legislation, both the Health Service Executive and the Department of Social Protection – the two bodies that oversee the registration process – regard the free consent of the parties as a mandatory ingredient in a lawful marriage. If the registrar had genuine grounds to believe Inga was not consenting, s/he would therefore have reasonable cause not to issue the marriage registration form. And the Free Movement Regulations already specifically exclude parties to a “marriage of convenience”. Immigration officers can already carry out investigations into couples applying for EU Treaty rights, and at least in some cases, they do: I’ve seen an FOI file with a record of telephone calls made to the EU national’s workplace to verify her employment. It may be the case that our civil servants aren’t actually doing enough to prevent trafficking for marriage, but they don’t need new laws to be able to do it.
Now as I noted in my series of tweets above, in 2013 the Irish government stated that it had not found any cases of trafficking for forced marriage. The 2013 Annual Report of the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit doesn’t mention any either, while a subsequent analysis of potential and suspected trafficking cases in 2013-2014 only notes about half a dozen cases of “other” forms of trafficking, a category which includes forced begging and criminality as well as marriage, without any further breakdown. Unless her department is even more dysfunctional than we realise, the Minister for Justice is aware of these statistics, so what is she on about when she says she’s “deeply concerned”? I think there’s two possibilities here. One is that she thinks women* are such delicate little flowers that we are not capable of giving real consent to what she calls a “sham marriage”, and therefore they’re all human trafficking cases. The other is that she knows full well that they aren’t, and is cynically exploiting the moral panic around human trafficking in order to make these rules look more like an anti-VAW measure, and less like the racist immigration controls that they actually are.
* Eastern European and Portuguese women, anyway. No concern seems to have been expressed for the Irish women getting married in other countries.
It’s also telling that the only kind of “marriage of convenience” these new rules apply to is one aimed at deriving a benefit in terms of immigration status. It is still perfectly ok to marry someone just for a financial benefit, whether that accrues to yourself or to your family.
Also not a “marriage of convenience”
What the new law actually does, then, is create a principle that two people may lawfully consent to marriage for any reason whatsoever except to gain an immigration advantage. There is only one category of people whose reasons for getting married can be lawfully (and, it must be said, quite intrusively) interrogated and – well, what do you know! – they happen to be non-EU nationals. In practice, of course, they are likely to only be certain types of non-EU nationals, specifically the brown ones.
So whatever about the intention behind these rules, they will inevitably be racist in their application. Registrars, who are already overworked if the waiting lists are anything to go by, are certainly not going to be in a hurry to play 20 Questions with every EU/non-EU couple who makes an appointment. They’ll make the same assumptions the Minister has, that is, that Eastern European and Asian relationships are so “statistically improbable” that at least some of them have to be fake. I’m not inclined to blame the registrars who do racially profile these couples, incidentally; there is still uncertainty as to whether they’ll face any consequences if a marriage they let go ahead is later determined to be a “sham”.
The strangest thing about this whole business is that the NGO who you’d expect to be objecting loudest to this, the Immigrant Council of Ireland, has actually endorsed both the concept of “sham marriage” and the “need” for state intervention. I don’t know if they’ve responded to the new law; their social media pages have been silent on it. But certainly, their advocacy in favour of keeping out certain immigrants would not have gone unnoticed by the Department of Justice. If there is anything about this issue that should give rise to “deep concern”, the collaboration of migrant sector NGOs with unavoidably racist methods of border control surely has to be at the top of the list.