Ireland's sham marriage scam

Sat, Oct 9, 2010, 01:00

Hundreds of women come to Ireland each year to marry non-Europeans – with the sole aim of securing visas for their new husbands. They are entering not only a fake marriage but also, often, an underworld of crime and abuse. Social Affairs Correspondent JAMIE SMYTHtravels to Latvia to investigate

IT IS ALMOST a year since Anna arrived at Dublin airport, a bright-eyed 18-year-old Latvian schoolgirl on a two-week holiday. Her trip to Ireland was not your typical half-term break. It was financed by a 24-year-old Pakistani man named Muhammad and arranged by a friend living in her town who promised her money if she travelled to Ireland to meet the Pakistani and consider getting married to him.

“My friend told me she had been to Ireland and had good friends there. She said the Pakistani guy would buy me everything I wanted. She told me I wouldn’t even have to marry him if I didn’t want to, but could just spend a few weeks in Ireland with him,” says Anna, who chain-smokes as she recounts a trip that very nearly ended in disaster.

Anna is one of a growing number of Latvian women – many of whom are young, naive and poor – responding to offers of sham marriages with people from outside the EU.

The scam exploits an EU directive on free movement that provides residency rights for non-EU citizens who marry EU nationals (although marriage to an Irish citizen would not provide these residency rights.) 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. This upward trend is continuing: 1,182 non-EU nationals applied for residency based on marriage in the first six months of 2010.

Most of these unions are genuine, but the Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, has said the large numbers of unusual nationality matches suggest many are shams. In January Ahern told his EU colleagues at a meeting in Spain: “There is growing evidence of abuse of EU immigration laws, and Ireland’s experience is that the love affair between Pakistan and Baltic states shows no signs of abating.”

Department of Justice figures show 266 spousal applications were made by Pakistanis up until the end of August, by far the largest number submitted by any nationality. More than a third of these applications – 115 – are based on marriages to Latvian women. Indians, Bangladeshis and Nigerians have also made a large number of applications for residency in the Republic based on marriages mainly to eastern European women.

The phenomenon is now so widespread that one of the country’s most senior marriage registrars warned in August that up to 15 per cent of civil ceremonies in Ireland could be bogus. Dennis Prior, superintendent registrar for the Health Service Executive eastern registration area, described witnessing marriage ceremonies where the bride and groom needed interpreters because they couldn’t understand one another.

I MEET ANNA in a cafe in her hometown in Latvia, about 80km from Riga. We have been introduced by Aleksandra Jolkina, a Latvian journalist who has written extensively in her home country on the sham-marriage industry between Ireland and Latvia. Her research has included interviews with women who suffered rape and sexual abuse, as well as undercover work in which she created a false internet identity as a Latvian woman seeking a “paper marriage”. For the purposes of this investigation The Irish Times teamed up with Jolkina and shared contacts.

Anna was one of these. She says she never intended to marry Muhammad but went to Dublin anyway because she wanted to have a good time and go shopping. She didn’t think about the risks of travelling to a foreign country and staying with a stranger.

“I didn’t have much money, because I didn’t work, and my mother didn’t have much money either. My family was living on about 250 lats [€300] per month,” she says. “I flew to Ireland in October last year and was met by two Pakistanis, who brought me to meet my potential husband. The brother of the groom lived in the house too, with his family. My potential husband was quite nice, but he didn’t speak much,” says Anna.

“I was brought to get a PPS [personal public service] number because he said he had got a job in a cafe for me. He also asked me if I had my birth certificate with me, because I needed this to register to get married. He wanted to bring me to a register office in Galway. I lied to him and said I didn’t have my birth certificate with me. I then told him I didn’t want to marry,” she says. “He got angry and told me the only way I would be allowed to go home was if the marriage organiser would pay back the money he’d spent on me. I think it was about €2,000. He locked me in the house for two days and I was not allowed out,” she says.

“I thought they would do anything to me, even rape me. I pretended everything was okay but I began to try to escape,” she says.

She was able to get access to the man’s computer and sent an e-mail to a Latvian journalist based in Dublin with the address of the house she was in. Within three hours the Garda arrived. The Latvian embassy contacted her mother, and she was flown home.

Several other young Latvian women have not been so fortunate and have been imprisoned, raped and abused by people involved in marriage scams. The Garda National Immigration Bureau is investigating such cases.

Last year a 19-year-old woman and two other women in their 40s from Latvia were imprisoned in a house outside Dublin by a group of men from the Indian subcontinent, according to a worker at an Irish NGO that helped the three women.

“The women were locked in a room that had no heating and given food just once a day. They were terrified and hungry,” says the worker, who does not want to be named in case it helps the perpetrators track down the women. “A Latvian man and woman had promised them money and a job if they married a non-EU citizen. When they escaped they flagged a car down and made it to Dublin. They were robbed when sleeping rough in Busáras before they came to our office,” she says.

The abuse didn’t end there. The women received threatening text messages from the organisers, making the two older women fear for the safety of their children back in Latvia.

Arturs Vaisla, head of the Latvian police’s human-trafficking unit, says they began to receive information about Irish marriage scams in 2006, and contacted the Garda about the emergence of criminal networks involving people of Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi origin in Ireland. Two groups in particular found recruiters in Latvia and began to search widely for brides, he says.

Vaisla’s unit is investigating several cases of alleged human trafficking, typically when women were tricked into coming to Ireland with the promise of a job and then sexually abused by groups who tried to force them into marriage.

Some women enter willingly into such arrangements, attracted by the large sums of money on offer, but are naive about the consequences. Vaisla says the money on offer for girls who are willing to get married is a powerful draw. “In 2006 they offered girls €10,000, which is huge money for Latvian girls, possibly several years’ income. In 2009 the prices fell dramatically, to €2,000,” he says.

The economic crisis in Latvia is a big factor in enticing women to travel to Ireland to get married for money. Over the past two years unemployment has surged to 22 per cent, and a quarter of the population live at risk of poverty – the highest rate within the EU.

Liene, whom The Irish Times meets in Latvia through our local journalist contact Aleksandra Jolkina, says it wasn’t just the money that made her consider a sham marriage. “I was told I’d get €3,000 by the Latvian organiser, and I’m a person who likes adventure,” says Liene, who flew to Dublin to meet a Pakistani student called Zubar. “I stayed for one and a half months in his house and had my own room. They paid for everything, and I was able to come and go as I wanted. I liked Irish discos,” says the 35-year-old mother of three. “They brought me to a marriage registrar a long way outside Dublin. I brought my birth certificate, passport and PPS number. There was no interview, but they asked a few simple things like if I’d been married before. It was very easy.”

Under the Civil Registration Act, all marriages must be notified to a registrar three months before a ceremony can take place, necessitating Liene’s trip out of Dublin.

A few weeks later Liene decided not to go ahead with the marriage to Zubar and returned home. But she says she knows other women who have married in Ireland.

THE ORGANISERS of sham marriages use different ways of recruiting women, says Aleksandra Jolkina, the Latvian journalist contact, who is writing a book on the phenomenon and has infiltrated some of the criminal networks procuring Latvian brides.

“Sometimes they meet Latvian women working in Ireland and form genuine relationships where no money changes hands; on many occasions the Latvian women find out after the event that their husband really only wanted them to get a visa,” she says.

“Usually if they source women directly from Latvia it is a sham. The woman can either stay on in Ireland and wait the mandatory three months for the wedding or return to Latvia and come back a few days before the wedding.”

Women are also recruited through job advertisements placed in the Latvian media, and through the Latvian social-networking website

When researching her book, Jolkina set up fake internet profiles posing as Latvian women seeking jobs abroad. She was contacted by more than 20 people via the internet, who paid for 18 airline tickets to fly her from Riga to Dublin to take part in a sham marriage.

Her most recent case involved an Indian man living in Ireland who called himself “Vicky Singh” on the internet. During an online chat he offered several thousand euro if she would agree to a “paper marriage” and find two Latvian brides for Indian friends living in Ireland.

Most of the Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis organising the scams come to Ireland as students on temporary visas that restrict their working hours and travel opportunities within the EU. Many of the Africans who have taken part in sham marriages are asylum seekers, some of whom have already had their claim for asylum rejected by the State.

EU treaty rights are the “gold card of immigration” rights, says Chief Supt John O’Driscoll of the Garda National Immigration Bureau, who is co-ordinating Operation Charity, which targets the growing scam. The bureau has lodged 57 objections with registrars since last November about civil ceremonies scheduled nationwide, and has arrested 16 people as a result of its investigations into illegal activity connected with the scam. He says his unit is investigating several cases of alleged rape and human trafficking, although none has so far gone to court.

Anyone has the right to object to a marriage during the three-month notice period before the ceremony takes place. If an objection is lodged, the registrar must investigate the marriage before it can proceed. But it remains unclear if registrars have the necessary legal powers to block the marriages, and there are fears they could be sued by couples.

A “marriage of convenience” for money or to circumvent Irish immigration law is not illegal in Ireland. Neither is it possible to prevent someone getting married because they are illegally resident in the State, which makes efforts to block the scam difficult.

A Latvian-English interpreter who has worked at 10 marriages over the past two years says he has never seen a registrar block a marriage. “Most of these were sham marriages, and it’s easy to tell. Everyone is dressed casually, usually in jeans and T-shirts, and it’s not a celebration. There is no reception and no friends with the girl. There are usually two witnesses with the groom,” says the interpreter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

He has worked at weddings in Drogheda, Tipperary and Donegal. Dublin is not a typical venue, because of delays of up to five months in arranging a ceremony, compared with the standard three-month wait at register offices outside the capital.

An address in Ireland and a job – proving the EU citizen can support the non-EU spouse – is required before the Department of Justice will sanction any residency rights for the non-EU citizen. To get around this problem organisers often set up fake companies to supply their Latvian brides with the necessary paperwork. One Dublin company, established by a Pakistani, supplied almost 50 women with work documents to support their husbands’ application for residency rights. But when gardaí called at its premises in the city centre, they found no one working there.

The growing problem of sham marriages is causing grave concern in Latvia. Its government has begun campaigns in schools and is training its consular staff at embassies to try to persuade women not to go ahead with bogus marriages.

Svetlana Biseniece, a senior official at the consular assistance division of the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs who worked in the country’s embassy in Dublin until mid-2009, says women turn up at the Latvian embassy in Dublin asking for copies of their birth certificate to enable them to get married. “Often they are accompanied by two or three men, usually from Pakistan, India or Bangladesh. We try to separate the woman by bringing them into a private room and talking to them privately about the potential consequences, such as the difficulty of getting divorced,” Biseniece says. “Two out of every 10 women don’t go ahead with a marriage after this consultation,” she says.

There is a great deal of frustration at the perceived lack of response from the Irish authorities. “We [the ministry of foreign affairs of Latvia] have repeatedly asked your Government to introduce simple measures to tackle the problem,” says Biseniece. “They could ask all foreign nationals to produce freedom-to-marry certificates from their embassies. This would direct all Latvian women to the embassy in Dublin and enable us to talk to them. They could also make it mandatory that you can prove lengthy residency in the country. They could also ask women to get birth certificates translated and stamped by the embassy, which again would force them to come to us,” she says.

“In spite of all the efforts of the Latvian and other EU-state embassies in Dublin, the feedback from the Irish competent authorities is minimal,” says Biseniece.

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 Aleksandra Jolkina, The Irish Times’s partner in this project

How the scam works

The “paper marriage” exploits an EU directive on free movement that provides residency rights for non-EU citizens who marry EU nationals. Marriages to Irish citizens do not provide these residency rights.

Some EU countries have laws against “marriages of convenience”, but Ireland does not, making it a target for fake marriages. 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.

Most of the Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis organising the scams come to Ireland as students on temporary visas that restrict their working hours and travel opportunities within the EU. Many of the Africans who have taken part in sham marriages are asylum seekers. When non-EU-nationals marry an EU national they are entitled to full residency rights, which under the EU directive are a lot stronger than the rights enjoyed by non-EU nationals marrying an Irish person in Ireland (or a French person in France, and so on).