Forced marriage: Families hire bounty hunters to find fleeing victims

By Lucy Adams Political Correspondent

arranged marriage bride
Mariam went through a forced marriage and believes her family hired bounty hunters to find her when she fled

Families are hiring bounty hunters to track down the victims of forced marriage who try to run away, the BBC has learned.

A woman in Scotland has told how her parents paid a gang to trace her.

Mariam – not her real name – says the only reason she was not killed was her family did not want blood on their hands.

A record 83 honour-based violence cases were referred to Police Scotland in the past year.

Diana Nammi, head of the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, said: “Victims live in constant fear.

“Families pay bounty hunters. It means you never know who the perpetrator is.

“We have cases where the family paid more than £100,000 to track someone down and kill them.”

An estimated 8,000 women in the UK are forced into marriage each year.

The Police Scotland figures, seen by the BBC, are the first ever produced in this country.

In April alone this year, there were nine cases.

One support agency said its cases had doubled in the past year.

‘Retrograde step’

The UK law to criminalise forced marriage comes into force on Monday 16 June.

But some lawyers and specialist agencies in Scotland have warned they believe this will drive victims underground.

“This is a retrograde step,” said John Fotheringham, family law expert at BTO solicitors.

“It will dissuade victims from coming forward because it means criminalising your family.

“The Scottish government had no choice because the UK government signed the Istanbul Convention which meant forced marriage had to be criminalised across the whole of the UK.”

Others, including the Scottish government, believe this will send out a strong message and help change attitudes.

Scotland already has civil orders to prevent forced marriage and protect victims, introduced and widely welcomed in 2011. Breaching such an order is a criminal offence.

Police say that the criminalisation will send out a strong deterrent message.

Det Supt Willie Guild, of Police Scotland, said: “Our top priority is the safety of the individual.

“We’re working closely with the procurators fiscal to ensure victims’ views and concerns are taken into consideration.

‘Lagging behind’

“We’re aware of concerns and we’re working closely with support agencies.

“However, our view is that this will send out a clear message that forced marriage is unacceptable.”

Girijamba Polubothu, manager at Shakti Women’s Aid in Edinburgh, said she fears Scotland does not yet have the support or specialist accommodation in place to criminalise forced marriage and warned that it will drive victims underground.

She added: “For some, the family members find there is no need for bounty hunters.

“Sometimes after six months, because there is a lack of support services, the victim goes back. They cannot cope with life.

“They have been in a golden cage and find that they don’t know how to make breakfast or lunch.”

Support agencies say the problem is getting worse and more women are coming forward because of growing awareness.

Jasvinder Sanghera, the founder of specialist UK agency Karma Nirvana, believes Scotland is lagging behind the rest of the UK.

She told the BBC: “What I notice about Scotland is that, although it will criminalise forced marriage, there isn’t the same level of awareness as in England and Wales.

“There isn’t that strategy that we have. Are they ready for this? Are staff trained?

Vulnerable people

“The calls that we get to our helpline in England from Scotland reveal that their access to support is very poor.

“And, sadly, there are real risk issues as well because of the lack of awareness and understanding.

“Scotland really needs to be thinking about how it’s going to deal with victims and survivors.”

Woman at window
Victims who flee a forced marriage live in constant fear of being tracked down by their families

Cabinet Secretary for Equalities, Shona Robison, said: “Criminalising forced marriage gives an additional layer of protection for some of our most vulnerable people.

“It demonstrates that we are meeting our international obligations and ensures consistency of protection across the UK.

“This not only sends a strong message to victims but also to countries where forced marriage is prevalent and where there is a lack of a domestic legal infrastructure to protect women and girls.”

She added: “There is no current evidence that criminalising forced marriage will dissuade victims from reporting it.

“In fact, knowing that perpetrators face a significant sanction should be empowering to victims and encourage them to seek help.

“The Scottish government provides funding to a range of organisations who can provide services including specialist support to people who are victims of forced marriage.

“We recognise that families using bounty hunters is a potential risk and that’s why safety planning is a central part of all agencies’ responses to forced marriage.”

A link to the article can be found here.