LONDON (AP)—British immigration officials said Wednesday they have smashed a criminal network suspected of organizing hundreds of sham marriages.
Officials said the group had exploited lax rules that allow foreign nationals to stay in Britain if they marry a European Union citizen working here, without having to show they intend to live together. Women had flown in from mainland Europe, including the Netherlands, to marry men they had never met. Many of the men were from Africa, officials said.
Officials said several people were arrested in raids across London over the weekend, including a woman at a London registry office.
“These operations are testament to the enormous effort and hard work by the Immigration Service to protect the U.K.’s immigration and marriage laws from abuse by determined criminals,” said Britain’s Home Secretary David Blunkett.
Mark Rimmer, director of registrars in the north London borough of Brent, said that as many as 12,000 bogus marriages were believed to take place for immigration purposes in Britain each year.
At present, registrars are required to report any suspicions to the Immigration Service, but if officers do not then act, they are obliged to go ahead with the ceremony.
However, the government intends to introduce legislation which would require foreign nationals to apply for permission from the Home Office if they wish to marry in Britain.
Immigration and asylum is a politically hot issue in Britain. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government said last month that the number of asylum applicants in Britain had fallen to its lowest level in seven years.
But the opposition Conservative Party and right-wing pressure groups both accuse the government of allowing immigration into Britain to continue unchecked.
Conservative leader Michael Howard said in a keynote speech Wednesday that Britain’s immigration and asylum system had broken down and become “chaotic, unfair and out of control.”
He called on Britain to limit the number of immigrants coming to Britain each year and pledged his party would withdraw Britain from the 1951 UN Refugee Convention if it won power.
“I believe that each year, Parliament should set a maximum limit on the number of people coming to Britain, just as they do in Australia,” said Howard. “That limit should be determined by Britain’s economic needs, the demands of family reunion and our moral obligation to give refuge to those fleeing persecution.”
The 1951 convention obliges countries to shelter those with a well-founded fear of persecution and forbids returning asylum seekers to countries where they might face further harm.
Howard sad the convention was outdated and said a Conservative government would replace it with legislation allowing asylum cases to be determined more swiftly.