It looked like it was supposed to be the happiest day of their lives.
But instead of walking down the aisle with bouquets of flowers in their hands, two brides and their grooms were handcuffed and taken to a police station.
The arrests were part of a co-ordinated operation investigating an international bogus marriage scam to allow immigrants to stay in the country.
Police and immigration officers raided two homes and arrested the Slovakian brides and Nigerian grooms before they reached the churches yesterday.
Another four men from Nigeria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, who are believed to be making up to £15,000 for each sham wedding, were also arrested. A further six Nigerian men were also detained on suspected immigration offences.
The arrests were centred around two gangs in Manchester and Bradford, West Yorkshire.
Officers waited until the Nigerian gang drove from Manchester to Bradford before arresting them in a service station just hours before the two weddings were due to take place.
Detective Sergeant Peter Gallagher, who led the operation, said: ‘We believe we have cracked an organised conspiracy in which marriage fixers and European brides were making money from Nigerian grooms desperate to find a way to stay in the UK.’
A suspect is taken into custody during the UK Borders Agency raids into sham marriages taking place at an M62 service station in West Yorkshire
Four men believed to be making up to £15,000 from each sham wedding were also arrested
The churches believed to have been targeted by the gangs are St Philip & St James in Scholes, South Yorkshire, and St Lukes in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire.
UK Border Agency regional director Jeremy Oppenheim said: ‘We will not tolerate immigration abuse and will punish those who break the immigration laws.
‘Over recent years we have clamped down on sham marriages introducing Certificates of Approval, family permits and encouraged registrars to highlight suspicious cases.
‘That’s why suspected sham marriages fell from over 3,500 in 2004 to under 400 in 2008. Under the tougher rules, anyone trying to play the system can expect to face imprisonment for up to seven years.’
It follows a vicar being charged with conspiracy to aid unlawful entry to the UK by helping to organise more than 180 ‘sham’ weddings for illegal immigrants earlier this month.
Reverend Alex Brown, 60, was arrested in a dawn raid on his rectory home in St Leonards, East Sussex, and his church, St Peters, 200 yards away.
He is accused of holding a ‘conveyor belt’ of services to allow African and Eastern European immigrants from outside the European Union to marry those with the right to stay in the UK.
When a migrant completes a bogus marriage, they can remain in Britain and move freely in the EU.
Those with residency rights in the UK, often from other EU countries, are paid up to £2,000 a time to take part in the sham weddings.
Labour toughened marriage laws in February 2005 after the number of suspect ceremonies–often arranged by criminal gangs who could earn £10,000 a time–reached 3,700 per year. Migrants were made to get a special certificate to marry if they lived outside the EU, or had only limited rights to live in the UK.
Those with only three months’ leave to remain were routinely refused on the grounds that the ceremony was performed just to avoid removal from the country.
The number of sham weddings has since fallen to around 300 a year. But the crackdown was left in tatters after the Law Lords ruled it breaches migrants’ human rights.
Law Lords said forcing a migrant to prove a relationship is genuine is ‘arbitrary and unjust’, even if they were getting married only weeks before their permission to stay in Britain ran out.