How Irish sham marriage scam was dismantled

Tánaiste introduced new powers that closed net on scam worth estimated €20 million

The facilitators would also guide the couples through the wedding day so they would not fall at the final hurdle.

Always a threat to the immigration system of any country, the Irish authorities believed a significant number of sham marriages were occurring in the Republic from early 2013.

In summer 2015 the agencies of the State decided that a concerted drive was needed to clamp down on the practice.

A huge multi-agency day of action, involving Garda searches and arrests, was carried out in November 2015 after investigations which remain ongoing.

While estimating at the time that about 20 sham marriages had been conducted per week for around a year, it is only now that the extent of the problem has become clear to the Garda.


Officers are now convinced that around half of the marriages in Ireland in the 2½ year period to the middle of 2015 were bogus; motivated not by love, but by immigration status.

It means well over 1,000 men, almost all Asian, paid between €15,000 and €20,000 each to criminals who arranged their marriage in Ireland to European women they had never met before.

Operative Vantage was established in August 2015 to tackle the international crime gangs organising the marriages .

The operation was established after the enactment of the Civil Registration (Amendment) Act 2014, with Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald said to have made it a priority at the time.

It gave gardaí and registrars presiding over civil marriages the power to object to marriages which they believed were bogus and were being used to secure legal status in the European Union for one of the parties, almost always the groom.

Active interest

Under Operation Vantage staff from the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) took an active interest in the day-to-day running of the registration office.

A cross-agency working group comprising the Garda National Immigration Bureau, INIS, Department of Social Protection, Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) and General Registrar's Office (GRO) was also established.

It aimed to to take a “whole of government approach” and to share data and intelligence relating to increased trends in the number of asylum applications in 2015 and increases in related EU Treaty rights applications.

As soon as the new legislative provisions were enacted and Operation Vantage started, the Garda began objecting to marriages and targeting the foreign criminals based in Ireland suspected of organising them.

They were arranging for women from eastern Europe and Portugal to travel to Ireland to marry men from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Mauritius who they had never met.

Many of the men made asylum claims on arriving in Ireland and once those claims were lodged, they went about sourcing the “brides” that offered permanent passage to live and work in the EU.

Once declared man and wife under Irish law, the men could apply through their European “spouses” to secure EU treaty rights, enabling them to live and work anywhere in Europe for the rest of their lives.

At the height of the scam, there was a marked increase in the number of asylum claims lodged by citizens of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.


Gardaí now say the decline in those claims – as well as reductions in notifications to marry being made by Asian men and women from other EU member states – is proof the system was being abused.

The men would pay a fee to the criminal facilitators who would then school them on how to interact with the Irish authorities in order to convince them the marriage was genuine.

PPS numbers were secured for the men and women and advice was offered on how to engage with the registrar when a compulsory formal interview for all intending couples took place.

The facilitators would also guide the couples through the wedding day so they would not fall at the final hurdle. And the criminals would also assist the “bride and groom” in completing the paperwork required for the “husband” to obtain EU treaty rights.

Before the women could marry in Ireland and thus help their Asian “grooms” circumvent the immigration laws, they were required to furnish proof that they were resident in Ireland. This was done by the facilitators producing fake documentation for the women, including pay slips from Irish shelf companies created for the purpose, as well as Irish household bills.

Gardaí say more than 100 people found to have been involved in the scam have been deported and that any marriage that went ahead and could be proven to be a sham would see those involved have the rights they gained revoked.

The same sources said the multi-agency approach was continuing to ensure the deterring the scam and preventing sham marriages remained a priority.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times