Denisa came to Spain for love. The kind of love that bears affection in freshly-printed Euro notes.
She is one of a group of Romanian women who have been recruited to Spain by criminals in order to participate in an intricate underground network of what EU police authorities have termed ‘sham marriages.’
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For her part, ‘Denisa’ (not her real name) was contacted while she was still in Bucharest, by a friend who had told her about the opportunity of making thousands of Euros by offering her hand in marriage to an unknown migrant – signing off on a false partnership which would grant her prospective husband the right to reside in the EU.
It would be a mere administrative formality, Denisa was told – no genuine feelings of emotion or attachment to the soon-to-be partner would be required.
The plan would have been relatively straightforward, had it not been for an undercover police operation foiling the whole enterprise.
In mid-August, the EU’s police agency Europol revealed that they had supported the Spanish Policia Nacional in the takedown of a sham marriage network that had ‘facilitated illegal immigration into the European Union by setting up partnerships of convenience between Indian and Pakistani migrants and Romanian nationals.’
Over the Summer, dozens of raids had been carried out by police authorities on residential and business premises across Spain, in a bid to crack down on the operations of the criminal network – which Europol say had accumulated profits of close to €1 million, charging migrants up to €20,000 each for their services.
The criminals would source vulnerable women predominantly from Eastern Europe and offer them the opportunity of earning thousands of Euros in exchange for entering into a false marriage with a third-country migrant. The migrant would then obtain the legal right to remain in the EU.
The summer raids in Spain are only the latest in a long line of sham marriage scandals in the EU, in which European criminals have sought to exploit the vulnerabilities of migrants and the impoverished alike.
On February 28, a police operation in Germany involving 175 police officers resulted in the arrest of the leader of a criminal organisation, a 44-year-old Indian national from Elmshorn, Germany.
The arrest was connected with a broader 2018 investigation, in which law enforcement agencies dismantled another covert network that helped to arrange for sham marriages to take place on the so-called ‘marriage-island’ of Aeroe in Denmark, as well as facilitate the production of Cypriot fake marriage certificates.
As part of the latter case, a 2019 investigation by the Hellenic Police led to the discovery of the ‘massive production and distribution of falsified or forged documents to third country nationals.’
Accusations have since been levelled at Cyprus from Belgian and Portuguese embassies concerned about the country’s purportedly lax approach to officiating over sham marriages.
Over recent years, the issue of sham marriages in Europe has risen up the political agenda. Between 2015 and 2017, EU researchers, NGOs and police forces from Latvia, Ireland, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland and Slovakia embarked on an EU-funded project to shine a light on criminal activities related to human trafficking in the domain of fake marriages.
The research found that the ‘methods of recruitment and target groups in exploitative sham marriages and human trafficking are often the same,’ and being a highly gendered issue honing in predominantly on susceptible women from Europe’s east, victims would often be lured with false promises of accommodation or financial support, or of fake long-term job offers.
Despite the raise in awareness that has resulted from such studies, the Spanish case over the summer reveals that criminals across Europe are still seizing the opportunity to profit from a field of human activity difficult to explicitly prove the disingenuousness of.
How can a visa authority ever doubt the veracity of a romantic union between two individuals emanating from different continents? How can a government body ever question the legitimacy of love?
In this vein, the only method of foiling such criminal activities and helping to soothe the heartbreak of Europe’s sham marriages is by unearthing the black markets at the heart of these projects.
In many ways, the sham marriage is the perfect crime – in the common light of day you can bear witness to a sham marriage ceremony and never even question the sincerity of the union forming before your very eyes. An intricately concocted, exploitative and lucrative criminal operation could be taking place, and you would be none the wiser.
This is how Denisa had hoped things would go. Now, safely back in Bucharest after never having had the opportunity to meet her ‘husband,’ she finds herself reflecting on the man she may have eventually ended up with.
“Of course, I’m lucky to have escaped before things got ugly,” she said. “But from time to time, I do find myself wondering about the man I was arranged to marry. Where he had come from and why he wanted to come to Europe. It would have been nice just to know his name.”
“Also, I guess now there’s no chance of getting the money that was promised to me.”
Going forward, Denisa will search for work in Bucharest and plans one day to work in the fashion industry. But before that, she wants to have a child.
“I’m on the lookout for a suitable father,” she says, a glint of hope and innocence blossoming from her young eyes.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.