World Agenda

Last updated: 19 november, 2010 - 13:00 GMT

Uncovering the Baltic brides scam

Latvian reporter Aleksandra Jolkina shows BBC correspondent Damien McGuinness her fake online profiles

Latvian reporter Aleksandra Jolkina shows BBC correspondent Damien McGuinness her fake online profiles

BBC correspondent Damien McGuinness describes the difficulties that arose from investigating the dangers faced by Latvian women recruited to marry non-EU citizens for money.

Anna is pretty, self-confident and fashionably dressed.

It’s hard to imagine that just a year ago, when she was 18, Anna found herself locked up in a house in a foreign country, where she didn’t speak the language, because she refused to marry a stranger.

She had travelled to Ireland because a friend had told her this was her opportunity to climb out of poverty.

The friend had given her a plane ticket and said that contacts in Ireland would look after her.

For the first time in her life, Anna thought this was her big chance to travel, have some fun and hopefully find a job.

One of the lucky ones

Things didn’t quite work out like that.

When she arrived, she was met by two Pakistani men, who told her that she was expected to marry one of them.

She refused and was locked up for two days, before managing to escape by emailing a Latvian journalist, who then called the police.

Anna is one of the lucky ones. Latvian police say that every year hundreds of Latvian women are lured into sham marriages with Asian men in Ireland, who want EU residency rights.

Desperate poverty

'Anna' spoke to Damien McGuinness about her experience of being held captive after refusing to marry a stranger

'Anna' spoke to Damien McGuinness about her experience of being held captive after refusing to marry a stranger

Last year, they estimate – according to Irish marriage registration records – up to 400 Latvian women may have been involved in the scam.

Some women who go along with it are paid 1,000 to 2,000 euros and escape unharmed.

But others are never paid, or sometimes physically or sexually abused.

Often it is friends or family who set up the sham marriage and some women never recover from the psychological damage caused by the thought that they were betrayed by loved ones.

The scam takes place in Ireland because this is one of the few European countries where you can’t be prosecuted for marriages of convenience.

And it’s young Latvian women like Anna, often still teenagers, who are sucked into the scam because of the desperate poverty in Latvia.

Fear of retribution

Anna is not her real name. She’s afraid that human traffickers might catch up with her, so we have to hide her identity.

This means that cameraman Janis Laizans has to come up with ingenious ways of filming and photographing her without showing her face.

The Latvian weather, changeable in summer and dark and snowy in winter, is usually a challenge. In this case though, the rain works to our advantage, making the umbrella a credible cover.

To uncover the scam, Aleksandra took incredible personal risks by meeting up with the traffickers. Now she’s gone public, she’s hoping that media attention will help protect her from any retribution

BBC correspondent Damien McGuinness

The main difficulty was finding Anna in the first place.

Women who have escaped are afraid of retribution from the human traffickers who profit from the scam.

While others, sometimes affected by alcoholism or mental problems, are too traumatised by the experience to talk about it.

Personal risk

It’s often brave local journalists who help the BBC uncover the real story.

In this case it was Latvian reporter Aleksandra Jolkina who put us in touch with Anna.

Aleksandra had posed as a potential bride herself for a sham marriage for a book she is writing on the subject.

She posted ads on Latvian social networking sites, saying she was looking for a job abroad.

Within a few hours she received offers from Asian men, prepared to pay her money for a marriage of convenience in Ireland.

To uncover the scam, Aleksandra took incredible personal risks by meeting up with the traffickers.

Now she’s gone public, she’s hoping that media attention will help protect her from any retribution.

Taking advantage

A campaign leaflet for a safe house shelter for victims of bride scams

A campaign leaflet for a safe house shelter for victims of bride scams

Living in Latvia, you notice the remarkable way people are dealing with the toughest economic crisis in Europe.

Unemployment is up around 20% and even those with jobs have had their salaries cut by up to 70%.

But many Latvians stoically struggle on, taking every available opportunity to survive. And it's this Latvian stoicism that the human traffickers are preying on, taking advantage of vulnerable teenagers like Anna who, against all the odds, are simply trying to make something out of their lives.

You can read Damien McGuinness's news report by clicking click here. Damien's investigation will also feature on BBC World News TV and BBC World Service radio

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