UK drops repatriation charges for under-18s in trouble abroad
Freedom of information requests by the network and the Guardian show that the Foreign Office repatriated 55 alleged victims of forced marriage in 2016, 21 of whom were from Pakistan and eight from Bangladesh.
British 16- and 17-year-olds who get into difficulty abroad will no longer have to reimburse the government the costs of their journey home, it has been announced.
The Foreign Office previously required people aged 16 and over who found themselves in a vulnerable position to pay for their own repatriation, or issued loans to those who didn’t have the funds, confiscating their passports until they were repaid.
The department announced it would be reviewing this policy after the Guardian detailed the case of a 17-year-old British girl who arrived at the UK embassy in Islamabad in 2014, seeking help to escape a forced marriage.
The girl, who cannot be named for safety reasons, was required to sign a loan agreement and surrender her passport before she was flown back to the UK. She was then issued a bill for £814, the cost of her repatriation from Pakistan, and told she would not have her passport returned until she repaid the money.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “Protecting safety and welfare is our top priority when we are dealing with cases involving under-18s. That is why we have made important changes to make sure financial concerns never prevent British under-18s from turning to us for help if they are vulnerable or find themselves in a difficult situation abroad.
“Under these changes, emergency loans will no longer be issued to under-18s. Other funding options will be pursued instead.”
Shaista Gohir, the chair of the charity Muslim Women’s Network UK, which helped the young woman and has been campaigning for a change in Foreign Office policy on emergency loans, welcomed the announcement but said it didn’t go far enough.
“We’re very pleased,” she said. “We raised our concerns with the Foreign Office and they responded quickly and held an internal policy review. [The policy change] is not everything we wanted, but it’s a really fantastic start.”
Gohir said the network would continue to campaign for the FCO to provide funding to cover the costs of all repatriations for forced marriage victims, not just those under 18.
Freedom of information requests by the network and the Guardian show that the Foreign Office repatriated 55 alleged victims of forced marriage in 2016, 21 of whom were from Pakistan and eight from Bangladesh. Of those brought home from Pakistan, six were provided with loans totalling £2,984. As of 31 January 2017, £1,513 had been repaid.
In total, the Foreign Office issued £9,048.89 in emergency loans to alleged victims of forced marriage last year. The emergency loan agreement document demands that an individual repay the debt within five years and, if the loan is not repaid within six months, a 10% surcharge is added in lieu of interest.
The agreement reads: “I understand and agree that passport facilities will not be available to me until my debt is paid in full, and that failure to repay may result in legal proceedings to recover monies owed.”
Gohir said: “Providing emergency loans to victims of forced marriage is only costing the FCO around £9,000 a year. That’s a really small amount compared to the department’s overall budgets, but a debt of £800 can be a real burden for an individual. It’s a cloud hanging over them and they can’t move forwards.”
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