A Nigerian man living illegally in the UK has been arrested and repatriated for a sham wedding between him and a Portuguese woman.
Home Office immigration officers swooped on the ceremony, which was held at a registry office in Harrow, North London.
Broadcast on Sky News yesterday, immigration officers said the woman may have married for cash on three separate occasions.
Police interrupted the marriage in front of guests and took the bride and groom for questioning separately.
It emerged that they knew little about each other and that the man was working in the UK illegally.
Harrow Council leader Susan Hall said: ‘It is appalling to see the lengths some people go to in dressing up and organising guests for a sham marriage.
‘A marriage is supposed to be the happiest day in your life. Well, in this case, the couple certainly got a day they won’t forget.’
The photographs and footage come after it emerged yesterday that one in five civil marriages in parts of Britain may be bogus.
Some 15,000 such ceremonies a year are taking place simply to get around immigration law, estimates one of the country’s most senior registrars, Mark Rimmer.
Last year the Home Office received nearly 1,900 warnings about potentially bogus unions.
But Mr. Rimmer, the chairman of the Local Registration Services Association, said that figure represented ‘the tip of a very large iceberg’. He said that in urban areas, up to 20 per cent of marriages are ‘suspicious’.
He estimated that overall, 15,000 of the 173,000 civil weddings each year in England and Wales could be fake unions designed to evade immigration laws.
Registrars were powerless to prevent couples they suspected of faking their relationships from marrying and were forced to conduct the ceremonies ‘through gritted teeth’, he said.
Mr. Rimmer said the problem was worse than at its high point in 2004 because laws drawn up since then to deal with the problem had been watered down by a series of human rights judgments to the point where they were ‘meaningless’.
Last week ministers announced a major crackdown on sham weddings, with laws designed to ensure every potential sham wedding is reported and investigated before it happens. It also gives officials more power to delay the ceremony taking place by up to 70 days.
Official figures show that the number of reported cases has tripled in the last three years. In 2009 some 561 reports were lodged with officials, a figure which nearly doubled in a year to 934 in 2010. By 2011 it stood at 1,741 and last year 1,891.
Home Office officials admit that the figure is likely to severely underestimate the scale of the problem. They put the likely number of sham weddings at between four and ten thousand a year. But Mr. Rimmer says the problem is even worse than that.
He claims only the most blatant cases are flagged up and ‘borderline’ weddings which are slightly suspicious go unreported.
‘We have seen huge increases in potential sham marriages presenting themselves to us, we now have more reports from registrars going to the Home Office, but I think that is the tip of a very large iceberg, and effectively the real scale of the problem is far greater than that reported to the Home Office officially,’ he told a Sky News investigation.
‘Most registration officers are not immigration officers, they came into this business to facilitate marriage.
‘So therefore they don’t want to be cynical, unfortunately therefore what happens is, the ones that are absolutely blatant get reported and there are some that are borderline that slip through without being reported – and that is the iceberg under the water and that’s huge – it is absolutely huge.
‘In an area like anywhere in London it is multiple times per week. It would not be unreasonable to say that 20 per cent of all our marriages are suspicious, have some elements of suspicion about them. Very often the ceremony is done through gritted teeth.’
Sham weddings became a major problem in the early 2000s and Labour passed a law in 2004 requiring couples including one foreign national to get an approval certificate from the Home Office before they could wed.
But this was watered down by a series of legal judgments on challenges under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act. As a result, Mr Rimmer said, the law became ‘meaningless’.
Ministers say new measures announced will provide registrars better powers to deal with sham weddings. When the Immigration Bill becomes law, every proposed marriage in which a non-EU national will gain rights to be in Britain will be reported to the Home Office
The notice period for marriages and civil partnerships will be increased from 15 days to 28 days for all couples, and officials will be able to increase that to 70 days in suspicious cases.
Foreign nationals from outside the EU wanting to get married in a church will first have to go to the register office and get approval – ensuring the authorities are made aware of the planned wedding.
Immigration Minister Mark Harper said: ‘Sham marriages have for too long been an easy target for migrants seeking to circumvent our immigration rules, often assisted by organised criminals.
‘By extending the marriage and civil partnership notice period to 28 days and allowing this to be increased to 70 days in some circumstances, we will make time to investigate, prosecute and remove those involved in sham marriages.’