Thursday, December 16, 2010

European judges kill off British law that curbed sham marriages

Laws credited with cutting the number of sham marriages by more than 70 per cent were yesterday killed off by European judges because they breach human rights.

The rules, which required some immigrants to apply for a certificate of approval from the Home Office and pay a £295 fee before they could wed, were judged discriminatory and against the right to marry by the European Court of Human Rights.

Judges said they had ‘grave concerns’ about the scheme because many immigrants could not afford the fee.

The scheme, introduced by David Blunkett in 2004, resulted in a huge reduction in the number of ceremonies performed in its first few years. The number of couples tying the knot in register offices in the East London borough of Newham fell by 72 per cent in the first two years. Across the capital, marriages fell by 36 per cent.

The number of reports from registrars about suspicious marriages also dropped spectacularly. A total of 6,652 people were refused a certificate under the scheme. However, a string of court rulings in the UK began to challenge the system.

The final nail in its coffin was hammered home by the European judges yesterday when they ruled in favour of Nigerian asylum seeker Osita Chris Iwu and ordered Britain to pay him £7,200 in compensation and legal costs of £13,600.

Mr Iwu arrived in Northern Ireland in 2004 and claimed asylum in 2006. In the same year, he proposed to his girlfriend, Sinead O’Donoghue, who has dual British and Irish nationality.

The couple were first barred from marrying at all, but after winning a series of UK court rulings, then could not afford the fee. Mr Iwu was banned from working and his fiancee was on benefits and caring for her disabled parents. They finally married after borrowing the money. Yesterday the Strasbourg court ordered the Government to refund the £295 fee.

The judges said the exemption for Anglicans having Church of England weddings also breached religious freedoms guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Home Office earlier this year announced that certificates of approval would be scrapped, in anticipation of the ruling.


Death of 27 asylum seekers highlights Australia's immigration problems

Twenty-seven asylum seekers have died and dozens may be missing after heavy waves smashed their timber boat onto rocks on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean off Australia

With rescue efforts still under way on the remote territory of Christmas Island on Wednesday night, 41 people had been plucked from the water and one had swam to shore. Several of the survivors had been taken to hospital and three were in a critical condition.

The incident will reignite the simmering debate in Australia over asylum seekers and border protection.

Every year thousands of asylum seekers attempt to enter the country by making the dangerous 230-mile journey from Indonesia by boat in the hope that once they arrive they will be granted refugee visas and allowed to set up home on the mainland, which is 1,650 miles away.

Most hail from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, and despite efforts to stop the procession of boats by the government, the country's detention centres are at capacity after more than 100 boats delivered 5,000 asylum seekers since January, the highest number for ten years.

There are now more than 2,000 people in detention on Christmas Island, which was originally configured to house 1,900. Three large tents are being used to accommodate the overflow.

On Wednesday, a wooden boat, believed to be carrying about 70 asylum seekers from Iraq and Iran, arrived at Christmas Island in treacherous seas.

Locals, woken at 6am by the screams from the stricken boat, rushed to the cliffs, where they were confronted by desperate scenes. The 130ft boat, which had lost power, was drifting close to the jagged rocks in the rolling surf. Women and children were clinging to the sides of the vessel and screaming.

As the islanders looked on, a huge wave smashed the boat onto the jagged rocks. The vessel disintegrated, sending its passengers and large planks of wood flying into the water.

While islanders frantically threw life jackets and ropes into the water, and some tried to clamber down the cliff to reach the victims, many of whom could not swim, navy boats attempted a rescue using two inflatable dinghies. But the dangerous conditions, brought on by a cyclone in the Indian Ocean to the north, hampered the rescue effort and scores of people, including women, children and babies drowned or were dashed against the rocks.

"There were children in the water. There was one very small child in a life jacket floating face down for a very long time... clearly dead," said Simon Prince, a local shop owner who lives on the cliff and was one of the first on the scene. "It's something I'm not going to forget very quickly."

"We could hear the screaming," a tearful resident, Ingrid Avery, said. "Screaming, screaming and I could hear children screaming." She said the navy boats had been delayed by the arrival of another vessel elsewhere on the island. Until the navy arrived, locals tried to help, she said.

"It was terrible to watch, there was nothing we could do, we were running around trying to send down life jackets but it was useless because the wind just blew them back in our faces."

Julia Gillard, the prime minister, said in a statement that the situation was "tragic" and the government was focusing on the rescue effort.

Earlier this year, Ms Gillard was accused of "going soft" on the issue by supporting policies that did not deter asylum seekers from making the dangerous journey across the Indian Ocean in unsafe vessels. Her party now wants to open a processing centre on East Timor, in the hope that it will move the problem out of Australian jurisdiction. The leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, has vowed simply to "stop the boats" if he gains power, a slogan that won his party strong support at the recent election.

Refugee rights groups have blamed misguided government policy for the disaster. "I do think the fact there isn't a welcome refugee policy, that the government has people smuggling laws in place which make it less likely that people on boats are willing to contact Australian authorities and to rendezvous," Ian Rintoul, head of the Refugee Action Coalition, said.

This is the third deadly incident involving boats trying to reach Christmas Island in the past decade. Last year, five Afghan refugees died when their boat exploded off Ashmore Reef, near Christmas Island, injuring 30 others. In 2001 the Siev X fishing boat sank just south of the Indonesian island of Java with 400 people onboard. A total of 353 people perished.


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