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My Big Fat Fake Wedding - join in the debate

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Eamonn Walsh | 13:22 UK time, Thursday, 24 March 2011

It should be the most romantic day in any couple's relationship, but every year hundreds of weddings take place where often the bride and groom barely know each other, and will rarely ever meet again.

These are sham marriages - a way for desperate immigrants to stay in the country illegally by paying to marry a stranger with an EU passport.

In this Panorama Special, Reporter Richard Bilton exposes a lucrative - and growing - industry. Posing as a wedding photographer, he films a sham wedding and reveals the real human cost at the heart of it; he investigates an Eastern European gang that charges £8,000 to supply teenage prostitutes as bogus brides; the immigration solicitor who will prepare the legal paperwork for sham couples; and he discovers how even the Church of England has been a target of bogus wedding fraudsters.

We welcome your views on My Big Fat Fake Wedding. Please use this forum to leave a comment.


  • Comment number 1.

    I'm quite disappointed by the sensationalist nature of this report.
    Firstly, it is not true that you can marry someone with an EU/UK passport and then have 2 or 5 years here living it up no questions asked. The report clearly states this several times however, the truth of the matter is that the person, after marriage, needs to go through an extremely lengthy and expensive visa process - you have to pay at least £750 (non-refundable if unsuccessful) for the visa and have money (several thousands of £) in your account to support yourself afterwards. The non-EU citizen has NO recourse to public funds for a couple of years. There are also lots of other financial and relationship checks.
    A lot of people don't realise the stigma that these reports create. I recently married a non-EU citizen, for love I might add, and due to the rubbish spread in papers like the Sun and reports like these that bend the truth to get higher viewer ratings, even my own grandparents think it's a marriage of convenience and have no idea how difficult it is to organise the visas and start new lives etc. It is not an effort we would have made if we didn't really want to be together.
    I know people do have fake weddings but you make it seem like it is the majority when it is not. People need to be better educated on these matters and not fed simplified, sensationalist versions of complicated matters.
    Very disappointing BBC

  • Comment number 2.

    I find all this trash is designed to take our minds off the global ball.Gokwasism is amongst us and telling it like it is girlfriend........i am gonna be sick.

  • Comment number 3.

    My big fake public British Broadcasting Corporation.

  • Comment number 4.

    Why are you holding back my posts BBC?Make an Eastend Stacy remark.........Straight in.Express a view on people getting killed on my tax pound..........No chance.........Sooooo.....What's going on in the Vic tonight?

  • Comment number 5.

    As a licence payer, I am shocked that my money is being spent on the BBC pandering to such populist anti-immigrant hysteria. Richard Bilton presents this as a serious piece of investigative journalism, but much of his commentary consists of him making presumptions about what ‘appears’ to be the case. More worryingly, the techniques Bilton uses to obtain his material is frankly unethical – he denounces ‘sham marriages’ whilst posing as a fake TV company, spies on his subjects and deliberately provokes situations to set up his story. Does the BBC not have an ethics policy? As a lecturer who works with many ‘human subjects’, Bilton’s ‘methodology’ would never have made it past our university ethics board.

    I am a British national who married a non-EU citizen in December 2009. We had to apply for a certificate of approval. This was a long, expensive process, which basically ended in a brief meeting in a registry office to check my future husband and I knew the other’s names. It was both futile and humiliating. Certificates of approval no longer exist because they were declared illegal as a result of a European ruling, as it is a basic human right to marry and have access to a family life. At my wedding, my husband and I came on our lunch break, with two colleagues, and went back to work afterwards, and we didn’t tell anyone about it because it wasn’t a big deal. Moreover, as Bilton puts it in one particularly choice phrase when meeting with the Anglican vicar, ‘we come from different cultures.’ Perhaps he would like to investigate us for not being 'romantic' enough?

    No attempt is made during this programme to try and explain why ‘sham marriages’ are (supposedly) on the rise - i.e. it is linked to the UK’s increasingly restrictive immigration policy which means that the ‘only’ way for non-EU citizens to remain in the UK is through marriage. Bilton’s failure to mention this, notably in the week a cap on foreign students was announced, is unbelievably ignorant. Your programme researchers would also have done well to go beyond their narrow British focus and look into the reaction in France to Minister of Immigration and National Identity Eric Besson's ill-fated comments about 'grey marriages' (les mariages gris).

    This programme was sensationalist, ill-informed and at times explicitly xenophobic.

  • Comment number 6.

    i have just finished watching panorama and it has left me very angry with the Home office. My friend and house mate has married for love her husband has married her for visa. they have a daughter together and after not even tasting the married life they separated. She has gone through hell to get her husband and love of her life to England legaly. this long and stressful process has left her pennyless and poorer, after she has gethered rest of her strenght and reported her marriage has broken down to the home office, she has been told, there is nothing they can do. She is asking them for help, and asking to remove him from this country as he doesn't respect the law or anything else than him self. She has been let down big time by the home office. The only way he can be forced out of this country is by divorcing him, but clearly it will not be easy as he will not agree, he is not going to give up his luxuary life in england and instead he is going to make my friends' life a living hell just because he can and there is nothing we can do about it.
    I really hope they will change the law so sincere people are not going to pay for trusting someone they once loved.

  • Comment number 7.

    Richard Bilton has just highlighted a very real problem which can only get worse.
    He was spot on to identify the links to serious and organised crime.
    This is a very lucrative industry with massive financial rewards, little chance of getting caught and inadequate prison sentences if apprehended.
    The immigration Minister Damien Green seems as naive as the the bloke he followed into the job - Phil Wollas into thinking the UK Border agency can actually have some impact. They are neither enough in numbers or equipped to deal with such complex and large scale abuse. They currently employ cops to assist them in tackling serious immigration crime. Due to the cuts the cops attached to UKBA will significantly decrease in numbers as many return to their home forces.
    Without wishing to sound like a mrechant of doom uncontrolled immigration and abuses of immigration law will only get worse.
    The current cencus is a complete waste of money, it will not give a true picture of the make up of the UK today. There are millions of unknowns living behind blinds and closed curtains. Walk past these houses daily and you will see no change. The people inside will not answer the door and come and go silently and covertly. These are the illegal migrants, working without the right and claiming benefits under false identities. Not to mention the the mail order and internet fraud that is also taking place.
    I don't buy in to large scale migration. I only see the bad side of it and because the UK is such a soft touch it seems to attract the dregs from other countries.
    Please don't potray those who come to the UK as victims or vulnerable. Granted some are (sex industry or domestic servitude) but if you are savvy enough to travel half way around the globe and then find ten to fifteen thousand Euros to get married then you are involved in organised crime. Fact.

  • Comment number 8.

    The programme is informative and interesting but biased and not particularly revealing or establishing anything new. It just made a really bad situation worse for people who are in genuine relationships and will need to go through that route to be able to remain in the UK. But the question is - why did we screw up our immigration system up so bad that it has come to this? And who will investigate the hundreds of genuine couples being harrassed and bullied by the UKBA after satisfying all their conditions. It will only be fair if you guys can investigate the UKBA too regarding genuine people whose life they have ruined by getting several decisions wrong.

  • Comment number 9.

    Don't you just hate it when you get shouted down or criticised for investigating the subject of immigration?
    Look at any poll these days and you cannot hide from the fact that immigration is a worry to large portions of the general public.
    What I want to know, is the next five weeks of panorama a follow on like Big Fat Gypsy Weddings was?

  • Comment number 10.

    Panorama has done a good job to pick out the very important issue of sham marriage, but I am EXTREMELY disappointed in the unbalanced and potentially misleading report of the role UKBA and COA play in this game.

    The programme did acknowledge certain weakness of the COA scheme, but portrayed it almost as a victim rather than a deeply unfair and ridiculous system. Most British public, ignorant of UKBA's forever changing rules (and rightly so, as UKBA's own staffs aren't even that familiar with them), are likely be misled to believe taxpayers' money is wasted on illegal immigrants and the EU ruling is just another case of Human Rights getting stupidly in the way of UK's national interests.

    However, BBC failed to highlight that the COA process
    1. before the fee was abolished in 2009 after total failing in court, charged £295 PER PERSON to make the application (for doing not very much, as we were told in the programme, and honestly, long suspected), more than doubling the initial fee of £135 (still ridiculous) at the introduction of the system in 2005 ;
    2. does not guarantee a turnover time - although most people do hear back within a month, it could take 3 months or longer, probably not surprising judging by typical Home Office efficiency;
    3. has a validity of only 3 months within which the couple must give notice to marry - taken together with the point 2, anyone who has ever organised an average wedding would understand how much difficulty this puts on the already very stressful wedding organisation;
    4. can be bypassed by getting married in an Anglican church (as pointed out in the programme), which produces a loophole for criminal gangs, puts tremendous pressures on vicars (as highlighted in the programme), AND is fundamentally unfair for people belonging to different faith groups (IGNORED in the programme);
    5. gives no provision for two people with shady immigration status to genuinely get married in this country, even if they clearly cannot benefit from the marriage for immigration purposes and cannot return to their home country to get married (e.g. two refugees), which, if I remember correctly, is the test case that led to the court ruling of COA being unlawful - then Home Office appealed (assumingly spending taxpayers' money) and failed, and appealed to the House of Lords and failed, and finally failed at the European Human Rights Court.

    Then you wonder why plenty of law-biding immigrants, who are as against sham marriage as the general British public, if not more (after paying thousands and thousands of pounds in tuition fees, visa application fees, tax and NI, having no access to public funds or benefits, you wouldn't think we admire people who take advantage of the system?), just regard COA as another clever invention by UKBA to rip us off?

    YES sham marriage is bad, but so is COA, and we should blame UKBA (and Home Office) for not doing its job properly, not pouring the frustration on EU court for defending human rights.

    Oh, and in response to the reference of funding cuts to UKBA at the end of the programme (as if they'd do a better job with more money!!!), I'd like to point out that WE, legal immigrants, have been forced to pick up the bill - the privilege of a standard study or work visa now costs £350-£850 if applying by post or £500-£1150 if applying in person. According to UKBA's own documents, these fees are sometimes more than three times the actual processing cost to UKBA. And on its own website, UKBA has made plain that its efficiency saving isn't enough, thus decision for further increasing visa application fees, in some cases to >£1000 even for postal application (oh and have I mentioned the potential >6 months waiting time?). Interestingly, where they can't increase the fees, e.g. in the case of Freedom of Information request, they just hold back the work, and last year's typical speed for these requests was ~1 yr (as opposed to the government's requirement of 1 month)...

    Sorry I've written an essay. If you are really serious about immigration issues, please at least arm yourself with more facts than UKBA can be bothered to project. Also I wonder how much our politicians really know about the immigration rules in this country...

  • Comment number 11.

    @Maureen - thank you... I dont need to say anymore...

  • Comment number 12.

    The proliferation of Sham marriages are the reason why most people are suspicious of marriages involving immigration status. Tight controls (which genuine applicants would not be afraid of) would surely benefit Genuine Marriages as that suspicion would be then be removed. There should obviously be tight controls to prevent illegal immigration as this would benefit all Legal Migrants by disproving the belief that the immigration system is being widely abused.
    I know from person experience that the system is lengthy and expensive for genuine couples but what alternative do we have?
    I would suggest the Home office licences Private Investigators to expose Fraudulent Marriages and pay them a set rate for every succesful expose and prosecution. I stress, Genuine partners should have nothing to worry about.
    A side issue - I wonder how the 'geniuine' Maria, having had her passport stolen in Britain, managed to get back to Spain without it? Was the 'loss' reported? Is passport data not checked during the Marriage application process? If so, why did it not flag up as 'lost or stolen'? If you're going to investigate Panorama, please do a thorough Job and ask the awkward questions.

  • Comment number 13.

    Can Panorama confirm that they have reported the solicitor featured in the program, Nazakat Ali, to the Solicitors Regulation Authority and that they are investigating his practice?

  • Comment number 14.

    To my mind this program just highlighted what is wrong with Britain and thats European Governance. The sooner we get out of Europe the better we don't need the Eastern Block to drag us down to there level of expectation which is what is happening, Big Business needed cheap labour ( why isn't that considered people trafficking?) so exploited the new member states and brought over millions of immigrants to do the jobs that Britain now needs to get our youth working. The immigration British people are worried about comes from Europe and in particular the old eastern block countries. people who's standard of living are generally set much lower than that of the British and therefore are willing to work for a lower wage and bringing down the standard of living for all who have to compete for those jobs that are being filled by immigration from Europe.
    We still have the choice, we still have the power, we just have to use it before the United States of Europe becomes a reality.
    Xenophobic no, protectionist damn right!

  • Comment number 15.

    Congratulations to the BBC ....really damn good piece of reportage.
    A number of points come to mind.... a) the programme revealed how numerous laws are continually being abused.......b) how incompetent we are (the Government) at doing ANYTHING to correct matters... c) how people are in this country illegally and DOING illegal things here once here ....d) how women are at the brunt of exploitation etc etc.... e) how corrupt the legal profession is in making money out of a chaotic immigration situation.
    For all the other dreamers who have put up comments condemning the programme my point is simple..... WE have laws for a reason... to be obeyed....society, as a whole runs better that way.
    I loved the Conservative Immigration Ministers face .... he had to defend the 'indefensible'...high-lighting how incompetent and useless we are at doing ANYTHING right.
    Well done Panorama team.

  • Comment number 16.

    Yes, congratulations to the BBC for highlighting this.

    However, it is also too little late. The dangers of wholly unchecked mass immigration are to blame for this, and much of the blame has its roots in the previous Labour 'Government', who thought it be a good idea to .... 'Rub the Tories noses in diversity'. There is another argument which says that the Labour restricted immigration controls to drive down wages. Either way, take your pic. "Government of the people"?? ... I think not, more likely that of Government of Treason!!!

    It is a great pity the British public don't bother to get into politics and realise the complete mess this country has become.

    For one, we need to get out of the EU, before this country avalanches officially to the status of a Third World Country. We are already inching our way down this road

    Sham marriages ... this is just the "tip of the iceberg", ladies and gents!!!

    Wake up people!!!!!

    Write to your MP, and to the Government, and raise your concerns!!!

    Ex-Labour voter.

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 19.

    In this little part of the Empire we just write letters and die.

  • Comment number 20.

    Big march in London against the cuts......Big turn out.......Belfast a wholly owned subsiduary State 30 people.Makes you think.Time to cut State sponsered loyalty.Every quid is a prisoner these days.

  • Comment number 21.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 22.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 23.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 24.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 25.

    Its very interesting that some people expresses so much anger towards this program. I find that BBC did a very good job in exposing the reality that these "sham marriages" do exist and the authorities have failed to address them. I myself is a Non-Eu married to an Eu National and ours is a genuine relationship. But there are many others out there who are abusing this system. I should say that the EEA route is probably the easiest way Non-eu immigrants can get to stay in Britain legally. COA is free of charge unlike what the other people have said. I didnt pay a penny even for my application to change my status. I totally support the COA for this is the only way that people can screen whether a marriage is genuine or not. People who are desperate to stay in this country will find loopholes within the UKBA rules and will do anything and pay any amount just to be able to stay in this country and there are greedy lawyers like Ali who are willing to help them... All they care about is the money that would flow in their backpockets.

    I hope BBC will continue to follow up on this issue. UKBA will need support and Media is a good way to spread public awareness on these matters and it should always be reported to the authorities because this is a serious crime.

  • Comment number 26.

    The report was of a sensationalist nature which you would have expected from the Daily Mail. It could have been a serious report that highlighted the exploitation of these "teenage prostitutes". It is wrong of the BBC to peddle such reports that are designed to to be anti immigrant.

  • Comment number 27.

    Panorama has given the British Public an insight into one stream of abuse against immigration controls. There are many many others which didn't even get a mention, such as the abuse of the naturalisation process.
    Should the government look into the possibilities of suspending all marriages involving foreign nationals until a better system is in place? If our migrant friends feel the need to get married during this period they could always travel to Nigeria, Pakistan or any of the Eastern European countries. Afterall the people who are mainly involved in this type of crime usually originate from these nations.

  • Comment number 28.

    You cannot blame someone for wanting a better life. However, in a society facing severe cuts and limited resources, people are going to lose empathy for the plight of immigrants. The system is deeply flawed and needs to focus on the reasons why people are so desperate to come here. Until then its worth giving a thought to the real victims of this..Women. They seemed to be used like cattle even by the educated lawyer in this programme - but seemed acceptable in that culture. By empowering women it could change things?

  • Comment number 29.

    I thought the first handful of comments on this were very insightful and bought up the main worries of Panorama's reporting here. It is dangerously biased. It is the sort of material that the BNP wouldn't have to twist much at all in order to use it to further their agenda.

    As all too often nowadays, no attempt was made to explain the other side: little is made of the fact that at the other end of the scale, very rich foreigners only have to deposit large sums of money in UK bank accounts in order to be given indefinite leave to remain. So those who can prove they are very well off do not have to go to the bother of marriages or expensive applications-they don't even have to pay- they just show the money and are let in for good.

    Other such issues (some misrepresented on the show) include the fact that immigration applications made after such weddings are very complex, uncertain and expensive. The very fact of coming temporarily to the UK and then having a wedding which potentially changes your immigration status, is grounds for the Home Office to suspect illegal entry. And there is no automatic right to stay for two years; it has to be applied for and can be refused. There are several criteria which must be met before a ceremony can take place which includes entry clearance as a potential spouse/civ partner. As someone else said the increase in contravention of immigration law, is due to the fact that our immigration laws are actually extremely onerous. As my job involves some immigration work I can say that almost all the media coverage on immigration involves an absolute disregard for the truth. NO RECOURSE TO PUBLIC FUNDS is a recurring phrase when dealing with non EU or A8 and A2 immigration. That dispels about 75% of the rubbish one hears, especially about council houses being given out. An accurate media representation of the facts about immigration law is something that, sadly, I have never seen.

    The serious worry in all this is the potential for incitement to hatred which arises from every sensationalist report. The bias of the reporter was obvious-I found his presenting odious. He constantly put forward as fact, his quickly assembled opinions and sought other such unsubstantiated opinions from others where it backed up his case. One example being his interview with the vicar who was indignant at the "foreign" names in the church register. Is this what the BBC has come to ? Complaining about foreign people using our churches. Church would incidentally, seem an expensive and unnecessary option for those conducting a "sham marriage". The other sickening thing was the harrassment of the couple getting married. At that point Panorama only suspected the marriage was fake. If that had been a real couple, perhaps shy, or with little English, perhaps distrustful of tv reporters, then their treatment would have been unforgiveable-their day ruined. It was crass, unfeeling and arrogant of the programme makers to harass a couple on what very easily could have been their wedding day. I wonder how many real marriages Panorama ruined in the making of that programme?

  • Comment number 30.

    I am church warden of an Anglican church, and while we were waiting for a new vicar, we had loads of applications for what had to be fake weddings. The men were all African and the brides were all EU citizens of different nationalities. When someone comes into the Parish Office, presents you with a 'common licence' and wants to get married next Tuesday, it is not difficult to realise that there is something wrong. We investigated each wedding and none met our strict rules, so we managed to say no. If more parish priests tried to visit future applicants at their home addresses, they would find empty flats or non existent addresses. A sure sign that all is not in order. Our new vicar has been very careful, her first applicant using an empty storeroom above a Chinese take away for their address. Word has got around though, as we have had no applications for months now.


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