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Sham marriages become more and more popular in Europe; refugees may also become victims of human trafficking

28.09.2015. Latvian legislation prescribes that a person shall be held criminally liable for deliberately carrying out actions that ensure third-country nationals with legal possibilities to acquire the right to stay in a EU member state. Sham marriages have proven to be the best way to do so. In order to find out how this devastating phenomenon is being fought against in the conditions of increasing migration, “Apollo” talked to Lāsma Stabiņa, National Anti-Trafficking Coordinator (Ministry of the Interior) and Manager of the HESTIA* project.

What is the main reason for sham marriages being so popular?

In many EU member states the marriage process is very democratic, i.e. nobody checks who is getting married and what the reasons are, often nobody even pays attention to the fact that the respective man and woman are not able to communicate in one language. The length of time they have known each other is also not checked. Thus, by abusing the opportunities offered by the state, people promote sham marriages. Quite recently – in August 2015 – Ireland made amendments in its laws and regulations, so that it would no longer be as easy to conclude sham marriages. As soon as a marriage registrant has even the slightest suspicion about a couple’s intent to conclude a sham marriage, he or she may inform the police and the immigration authorities.

Is the current “refugee crisis” the reason for Ireland introducing the amendments?

No, Latvia has been encouraging the competent Irish authorities to solve the sham marriage problem within the state since 2006. But now there are a lot of migrants within EU member states who are looking for possibilities to legally stay in the EU. People are constantly thinking of new ways to bypass the obstacles created by us.

Could you name some examples?

Women are no longer approached “directly” by being offered money for marriage, but are now searched for on the internet and being offered jobs. They arrive and find out that there is no job, but there is a candidate that they have to marry. Usually women who have come to work do not agree to such terms, and then the worst case scenario begins. They are affected in different ways – physically, as well as morally. Sometimes they are also raped. For the sake of their own life and in order for the nightmare to finally end, they agree to get married. However, nothing usually ends with the marriage, and the situation only becomes worse. It’s like a vicious circle.

What will happen to this vicious circle when Latvia receives 531 refugees?

In the context of refugees I find myself thinking more and more about the fact that at the time when this target group will be taken in an efficient action plan will have to be in place for fulfilling the well-being and staying requirements of the refugees in order for them to remain in the sight of the responsible institutions and non-governmental organisations. Refugees are potential victims of human trafficking, because they are in a vulnerable situation. They have left their homes, they don’t know the language, and they don’t have any money. There will always be someone who will be able to benefit from this and who will try to abuse such people. Therefore we might also become a country of destination for the exploitation of people.

What is the correlation between human trafficking and sham marriages in real life?

The two are directly linked! In 2011, Latvia made a recommendation to Ireland that activities for decreasing the amount of sham marriages should be implemented and that they should be criminalised. The Irish side was forced to pay attention. We were able to convince our colleagues that sham marriages are very closely linked to human trafficking. Before there was a belief that sham marriages are solely a violation of migration policy. However, we have information that proves the fact that these marriages are used with the aim to exploit people.

And what is being done to eradicate sham marriages?

We have developed and are currently implementing an international project named “HESTIA”, which is aimed against human trafficking and sham marriages, and currently involves approximately 20 researchers and specialists from six countries – Estonia, Lithuania, Ireland, Slovakia, and Finland. The project is run by Latvia, i.e. the Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Latvia and the project partner – society “Shelter “Safe House””. The State Police and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are also among the associated partners. The activities of the project are focused on creating a joint understanding of what sham marriages mean in direct relation to human trafficking in all EU member states. It is an innovative approach; a creative process for trying to solve the problem across the whole EU. Thanks to our study, which will be published next May, we will be ready to offer a comprehensive action plan to all countries.

What will it provide?

Us, and other EU member states, will be able to create a common approach for solving this problem. It is only possible to properly solve a problem after it has been named and identified.

Does the perception of this problem differ in the EU?

The perception is very different. And so is the terminology. There are white marriages, grey marriages, forced marriages, fictious marriages, marriages of convenience, and business marriages. Besides, Latvia is the only country that restricts its citizens’ ability to enter into sham marriages abroad by imposing criminal liability. Other countries have established penalties only within their own borders.

Why is it exactly Latvia that is in charge of such a large and important project?

Latvia was one of the first states to start talking about this problem and bringing the attention of other states to the fact that it exists. Already as early as in 2006, the Embassy of Latvia in Ireland observed that the number of sham marriages was increasing rapidly. And soon after that victims of human trafficking who were looking for help started to appear –they were deceived and cheated women who had run away from their exploiters or fictious husbands.

Where do you find the inspiration and strength for such an ambitious and responsible project?

In our daily work we were able to see how these sham marriages are able to ruin people’s lives. It is not only the women who are the victims. It is also their relatives and their children. We also decided to approach international partners, as this is a global and not a local problem. Currently, with the project gaining momentum, there are states that want to join themselves. For example, Cyprus recently expressed such a desire, since the problem of sham marriages is also very topical for them. A large human trafficking scheme was recently discovered in Italy, where homeless people are involved in sham marriages. Sham marriages are also becoming more and more popular in Portugal.

The European Commission has great expectations regarding the results of the project, because they will be used to make decisions on the following steps in the fight against human trafficking in connection with sham marriages on the level of the whole EU.

*Project "Preventing human trafficking and sham marriages: A multidisciplinary solution" (HESTIA) has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein. Grant Agreement Nr. HOME/2013/ISEC/AG/THB/4000005845. #HESTIA_THB

HESTIA project partners:  Ministry of the Interior (Latvia), NGO "Shelter “Safe House"" (Latvia), NGO "Mittetulundusühing"" "Living for Tomorrow" (Estonia); NGO "Caritas Lithuania" (Lithuania); Immigrant Council of Ireland (Ireland); Ministry of the Interior of Slovak Republic (Slovakia); European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control of the United Nations (HEUNI) (Finland). Project associated partners: The State Police (Latvia), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Latvia), Department of Justice and Equality (Ireland).

Interview author: journalist Sabīne Košeļeva, portal The information was published 04.04.2016. by (in coordination with the editorial board of Rasa Saliņa, Public Relations Specialist of the project HESTIA, e-mail: