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Authorities in Britain battle against sham marriages

One high profile case has brought the growing problem of sham marriages in the UK to national attention. Hundreds of couples have been tying the knot for motives that have little to do with love.

A bride and groom walking along a grassy path, hand in hand

For many couples married by Reverend Brown, marriage has nothing to do with romance

Reverend Alex Brown conducted 383 weddings over four years at the Church of St Peter and St Paul in the seaside town of St Leonards in Sussex.

Far from being idyllic English country weddings, 360 of them were in fact shams.

With Brown presiding as vicar, eastern Europeans from EU countries, who have the right to live and work in the UK, were married to West Africans, many of them Nigerians, who don't.

The plan was for the eastern Europeans to be paid for their part in the scam, while the Africans would be granted legalised residency in Britain.

two wedding rings

The British government plans to clamp down on sham marriages

Along with two other men, 61 year-old Brown was convicted of conspiring to facilitate illegal immigration.

Co-defendant Vladymyr Buchak, originally from Ukraine, paid the eastern Europeans as much as £3,000 each (3,628 euros or $4,670) to marry Africans.

And solicitor and pastor Michael Adelasoye used his legal knowledge to help immigrants with applications to the Home Office.

The court heard how Brown had conducted the 360 sham ceremonies in the county of Sussex between July 2005 and July 2009 and had not been following Church of England procedure for reading out marriage banns for a significant part of this period.

33 year-old Buchak, who had been living in the UK illegally himself, had preyed on migrant workers living in the area who were desperate to earn money.

Sentencing has been adjourned until September 6, but the sheer size of this wedding scam has shocked many and brought the issue to the attention of the public at large.

More cases coming to light

The archdeacon of Hastings and Lewes, the Venerable Philip Jones, insisted Brown's case was unique.

"This sort of thing has not happened before to my knowledge and certainly not on this scale. The fact that so many people went through marriage ceremonies in the way it is alleged that they did, and he has now been convicted for doing, is just very unusual and is not something that the Church would condone at all," he said.

But it is clear this was not an isolated incident.

Within days of Brown's conviction, two more Church of England clergymen were arrested in east London.

Their arrests followed a police operation at a wedding at All Saints' church in Forest Gate during which a Nigerian man was detained as he prepared to marry a Dutch woman.

The Nigerian has been charged with perjury, attempting to gain leave to remain by deception, and identity card offences.

The Dutch woman has admitted facilitation offences and has been banned from the UK for a year.

A young Nigerian working in Lagos

Young Nigerians especially have been keen to use sham marriages to enter Britain

Calls for immigration controls to be tightened

Cracking down on the use of sham weddings to get around immigration laws will not be easy, and how to do so is a hotly debated question.

Sir Andrew Green, Chairman of Migration Watch UK, wants immigration controls toughened up.

"I think that there are a very large number of loopholes in our immigration system. In Britain we have taken the European Court of Human Rights Convention into our domestic law and what that means is that judges can apply it to every case in front of them. And very often they apply general concepts of law in a way that make immigration policy extremely difficult to implement. I think we've got to change the law. The sooner it's done, the better," he said.

Some suggest, though, that it is Britain's already stringent immigration laws that are causing sham marriages to seem like an attractive option.

Habib Rahman, Chief Executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, is in the camp that thinks immigrants are being forced into rash decisions to try and obtain the right to stay in Britain legally.

"If you make the system a fortress, then people go through all kinds of things to breach the fortress. If a person is here, and they are working, their character is good and they're not a threat to the security of the country, they should be allowed to stay here", he argues. "

That kind of flexibility we should think about and not bring in rigid regulations so we have these kinds of awful cases of people going through sham marriages, of cajoling people to get married."

Would-be illegal immigrants will face greater obstacles

However, Britain's new coalition government shows no sign of relaxing immigration restrictions.

On the contrary, Immigration Minister Damian Green says he wants to make it even more difficult for illegal immigrants to enter the country.

"We are determined to create a hostile environment which makes it harder than ever for illegal immigrants to come to the UK and put untold pressures on our public services," he said.

Mr Green aded that specialist teams of immigration and police officers are working to tackle organised criminality involving sham marriages.

Author: Olly Barratt, London

Editor: Susan Houlton

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