WHEN most genuine brides get married, their walk up the aisle is usually the culmination of months - if not years - of planning, and several days worth of beautification routines.
So when the Chron reported in 2010 that one Northampton bride turned up for her ‘marriage’ wearing a wedding dress four sizes too large, on top of her jeans, it will come as no surprise to readers that the wider story was a court case involving sham marriage offences.
The signs of a suspect marriage can range from the obvious - for example a marrying couple who cannot speak each other’s languages - to the more subtle deceptions of fraudulent identity documents.
Following the news that yet another alleged sham marriage case is currently going through the Northampton court system, the Chron decided to investigate the systems in place to crack down on suspect weddings in the county.
Janet Blunden, the county’s superintendent registrar, said the Northamptonshire team of about 40 registrars working from seven offices, is required to be on the alert for any points of suspicion when couples give notice or turn up for their weddings.
She explained that, since November last year, staff have reported about eight suspect marriage applications.
She said: “We had a presentation given by the UK Border Agency to our members of staff because they wanted to say to us, if we think there is anything not quite right, they are happy to take a report.
“We can only report a potential sham marriage. These people have to give notice of marriage like anyone else does and at that stage we are able to fill out a section 24 report where we can outline the various things that make us suspicious it might be a sham marriage.
“Anyone can get married within 16 days of giving notice so there is a small window of time in which we have to work.”
At this stage it is up to the UK Border Agency to decide whether there is cause to disrupt the wedding.
The pressure is now on for registrars as, until last year, a ‘certificate of approval’ from the Home Office was required for any migrant in the UK, subject to immigration control, who planned to get married in this country.
But since this was outlawed last May under the Human Rights Act 1998, the first port of call for many couples has now become the registrar in their local towns.
According to Janet the precise details of the section 24 criteria cannot be revealed but she said that registration officers in the county have special training in identifying even the subtlest telltale signs such as any strangeness in the body language of couples.
She said: “It is just like customer awareness in the customer service industry. You have to be able to read your customer very quickly.”
Andy Radcliffe, a regional manager for the UK Border Agency joint immigration and police crime teams, said there is a team based in Northamptonshire whose job it is to look into immigration crimes such as sham marriages.
He said much of the crime comes down to the work of organised gangs who can make a lot of money out of arranging fraudulent marriages for non EU citizens who want to remain in the UK.
He said: “Given the work we have done with registrars and clergy we have improved intelligence and other people’s awareness of sham marriages. We have been able to build up intelligence of what a sham marriage looks like.
“It might be they don’t speak the same language or there is a lack of interaction between them. We have had people with prompt sheets who can’t remember the bride or groom’s workplace or any of the other bits and pieces.
“We are interested in the organisers behind the sham marriages. We know there are criminal gangs who arrange these things. Obviously there are the one-offs with people who just met each other but the vast majority are organised by criminal groups who are making a lot of money out of arranging these sham marriages.
“So, a lot of these marriages will fit into a certain pattern.”
The next step for the UK Border Agency, when there are sufficient suspicions regarding a marriage, is to disrupt the wedding.
Andy said; “We don’t do it at that point for dramatic impact. If we arrested them beforehand they could say ‘we weren’t going to get married.’ If we waited until afterwards we might not be able to find them.”
He added: “In Northamptonshire in 2010 we had a big investigation around some of the churches and a number of Nigerian nationals and EU nationals under Operation Sandford. There were 10 people charged, convicted and sentenced under that particular investigation.”
With churches sometimes targeted as potential locations for sham marriages, clergy members have to remain eagle-eyed for any suspicious details which need to be reported.
The Rev Derek Williams, media adviser for the Diocese of Peterborough (which includes Northamptonshire), said: “Clergy are encouraged to be alert and if they have any doubts to refer them to the diocesan registrar who is a lawyer and can look into it a little more carefully.
“We had a meeting with someone from the UK Border Agency about 18 months ago, who told us about how subtle some of the forgeries are, there is no way ordinary clergy would be able to spot these, you need an expert to be able to do that.”
Facing the consequences...
-Adewale Illesanmi, aged 24, of Kale Road, Erith in Kent, formerly of Duke Street, Northampton, was jailed for three years after providing a passport with a forged visa for leave to remain in the UK. He had overstayed his tourist visa and was getting married in order to be able to stay in the UK and European Union. His bride was not charged with any offences.
-The Chron reported a court case in which it was heard that three couples planning to go through sham marriage were arrested when visiting a Northampton vicar to sign their banns. According to the case at Northampton Crown Court, each wedding was to be between an illegal immigrant from Africa and a non-British EU national.
Would-be bride Mariam Gambo, then aged 37, from Edmonton, was jailed for two years after she admitted possessing a forged Ghanaian passport with indefinite leave to remain in the UK and making a false statement for marriage.
Meanwhile her Portuguese groom Basamba Darame, aged 51, of Manchester, denied conspiring to breach immigration laws, claiming the marriage was for real. He was later sentenced to two years for facilitating a breach of immigration law.
Czech Lucie Kleinerova, aged 25, and her Nigerian groom Charles Olubiyi, aged 33, from Talbot Road, were also jailed for two years after they admitted sham marriage and immigration offences. They also faced deportation after release.
Slovakian Ivan Gorol, aged 20, from Bradford, was jailed for two years after he admitted making a false statement for marriage.
His Nigerian bride Kemi Awolesi, aged 25, from Manchester later received two years for passport offences.
-The Chron reported that criminal gangs had been targeting Northampton in a series of sham marriages intended to bypass immigration restrictions.
Charging up to £2,000 ‘expenses’ a time, the organised crime gangs in the Manchester area used forged utility bills and doctored passports to put up a dozen ‘couples’ for marriages which would provide European Union status.
Between January and June 2010, 10 people had been jailed after being arrested as they were about to go through with a sham marriage.
A fake groom who admitted playing a role in at least four sham marriages was linked to similar bogus weddings in Northampton.
Oscar Prata, an Angolan-born Portuguese citizen, was handed a three year sentence for involvement in sham weddings in Coventry.
Simon Phillips, prosecuting, told Coventry Crown Court: “At the time of the arrest of Prata and during a search of his rented premises, three mobile phones, two diaries and other documents were seized. Interrogation of these items by the UK Border Agency showed he had contact with others involved in sham marriages in Northampton, Gloucester, Ilford, Dartford, London and Coventry.