Trapped in a sham marriage


In the second of a three-part series on sham marriages – where women come to Ireland to marry non-Europeans to get work visas – Social Affairs Correspondent Jamie Smythlooks at how Irish legislation fails to prevent these marriages and the difficulties faced by women trying to escape them

SANDRA ZALCMANE is getting used to picking up the pieces when women arrive back in Latvia from Ireland with a marriage certificate but no groom.

The head of Shelter Safe House, a Latvian NGO that offers support to victims of human trafficking, Zalcmane says she has seen an avalanche of “sham marriage” cases over the past year, which she attributes to the deep economic crisis in Latvia.

“Some women are tricked into getting married. Many have low education levels and some even have mental problems, which make them particularly vulnerable. We have helped women who suffered sexual abuse and rape,” says Zalcmane, who says Ireland and Cyprus are the two countries where Latvian sham marriages are most common.

The shelter is now receiving government funding to help deal with the emotional turmoil and legal quagmire experienced by a growing number of Latvian women who are getting caught up in Ireland’s sham marriage industry.

The scam exploits an EU directive on free movement, which provides residency rights for non-EU citizens who marry EU nationals. Typically, it involves Pakistani, Indians, Bangladeshis and some Africans living in Ireland, who seek marriages of convenience with women from eastern Europe.

Marrying an Irish person in Ireland (or a German in Germany, etc) does not provide a non-EU national with the same residency rights, as they are not covered by the EU directive.

Since the directive became law in 2006 the number of people applying for residency rights based on marriage to an EU citizen in Ireland has increased steadily, reaching 2,129 in 2009, up from 1,207 in 2006.

The Shelter Safe House is currently helping an 18-year-old Latvian woman who was promised a job in a shop by a friend living in Ireland with an Indian boyfriend, says Gita Miruškina, a lawyer working for the shelter.

When she arrived in Dublin, she was allowed to stay in their house but no job materialised. After some time her friend’s boyfriend said she had to get married to his friend to pay him back for board and lodgings, she says.

“She was put under a lot of pressure and had no one to turn to in a foreign country so she agreed,” says Miruškina. “Now she has returned to Latvia, found a boyfriend who she loves and is pregnant. She wants to marry her boyfriend but can’t because she is already married. In Latvian law, her baby will be registered under her husband’s name,” she says.

Unpicking a sham marriage conducted in Ireland is difficult. Under Irish law a divorce takes at least five years to secure. An annulment is a possibility but it can be difficult to get unless there is hard evidence that a marriage is a sham.

A woman can apply for a divorce back in her home country. But this can take time too as she would have to prove she is habitually resident in Latvia to apply for the divorce. The woman would then have to make an application for mutual recognition of the Latvian divorce from the Irish authorities.

The legal difficulties faced by the 18-year-old Latvian being helped by Shelter Safe House are compounded by the fact that she doesn’t have a copy of the marriage certificate and can’t remember the registry office where she got married, says Miruškina, who has prepared a guide for Latvian women on how to get a divorce or annulment from a sham marriage.

At the Latvian Embassy in St Stephens Green, consular officials began noticing a big increase in the number of marriages between Latvian women and foreign men as far back as 2006. A briefing note drawn up by the Latvian Ministry for Foreign Affairs identifies Pakistanis, Nigerians, Afghanis, Egyptians, Iraqis and Syrians as the most common non-EU spouses for Latvian women.

“Regarding such marriages of convenience, the embassy receives frequent complaints about violence and requests for assistance to return to Latvia,” says the note.

Consular officials often attempt to talk the young girls out of marriage when they arrive at the office seeking documents such as birth certificates, which are required by the marriage registry office. They have also supported information campaigns in Latvia in universities and in the mainstream media to warn of the potential dangers of sham marriages.

However, there is huge frustration at the slow response of the Irish authorities to the problem following repeated representations by Latvian officials to the Government.

“Irish authorities are very tolerant to the fact that a groom can pay a bride for marriage, as this is an ancient Irish tradition to pay a dowry,” says the briefing note.

TACKLING SHAM MARRIAGES is complex given the difficulty in distinguishing between sham and genuine marriages and a requirement to respect people’s privacy. The State must also meet its responsibilities under EU law to guarantee free movement to the spouses of EU citizens and is prevented from undertaking systematic checks against particular nationalities.

But the Government’s response has so far been disjointed, according to Denis Naughten, former Fine Gael justice spokesman, who has researched the sham marriage phenomenon.

“It has focused considerable energy trying to limit the rights provided by the EU freedom of movement directive for the non-EU spouses of EU citizens rather than attempting to prevent the marriages taking place in the first place,” says Naughten.

In 2005 the Department of Justice introduced a requirement for all non-EU spouses of EU citizens to live in another EU state before they could gain residency rights in Ireland. This was overturned by the European Court of Justice in 2006. Earlier this year, the department restricted the rights of non-EU spouses to work while their residency applications were being assessed. The Irish courts again ruled this was contrary to the EU freedom of movement directive.

Sustained lobbying by Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern at the EU Council of Ministers to agree to revise the EU freedom of movement directive has also come to nothing.

The Garda National Immigration Bureau launched its own investigation into sham marriages in autumn 2009, which has led to 16 arrests. The bureau has also begun to issue written objections to registrars when they feel a scheduled marriage may not be genuine. This year, 57 marriages have been objected to by the Garda.

However, the Garda investigation is hampered by a lack of legislation. It is currently not illegal in Ireland to take part in a sham marriage for immigration purposes, or to accept cash in return for getting married. This forces the Garda to tackle the problem indirectly by targeting criminal offences such as bigamy, false documentation or being in the State illegally.

A test case before the courts this month could also undermine the Garda policy of objecting to suspected sham marriages.

TOUGH NEW RULES proposed in the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2008 have been watered down in a recent draft of the Bill. But it would at least define a marriage of convenience for the first time in Irish law and enable a Minister for Justice to disregard a sham marriage when considering a residency application.

Many other developed countries have introduced tough laws making it a criminal offence to enter a sham marriage to circumvent immigration law.

For example in the US any “individual who knowingly enters into a marriage for the purpose of evading any provision of the immigration laws” could face up to five years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. Marriage registrars in countries such as France also have more power to investigate marriages.

Naughten says this is where the Government should concentrate its efforts. He says the Civil Registration Act should be amended to give registrars more powers to interview brides and grooms and block any marriages they deem to be shams.

Guidelines issued to registrars last month introduced some new identification requirements for brides and grooms, restrictions on the use of interpreters and the number of people that can be admitted to a registrar’s office. However, they fall significantly short of the demands made by other EU states such as Latvia and marriage registrars themselves.

The General Register Office is lobbying the Department of Social Protection to introduce legislation allowing it to boost its powers.

This may prove the only way to ensure that the institution of marriage, which is specifically protected in the Constitution, does not continue to be abused by those seeking residency in Ireland.

This investigation was supported by the European Fund for Investigative Journalism (, which assists journalists researching cross-border stories. The money provided by the fund will support the work of Latvian journalist Aleksandra Jolkina, The Irish Times’s partner in this project