Is Europe Legalizing Child Marriage?

Sweden has temporarily legalized these unions for immigrants who wish to stay married to their underaged wives. In a move criticised by many as promoting pedophilia, the Swedish government has defended their controversial decision saying that the huge influx of immigrants from polygamous and ‘sexually diverse’ cultures has resulted in a sensitive ‘humanitarian’ crisis.
“We do not accept or condone child marriages, but the law also states that individual trials should be conducted in each case. Our assessment was that the girls could live with their men during the asylum process”, Karlskrona Social Committee Chairperson Ingrid Hermansson said.
This approach was not shared by Camilla Brunsberg of the Conservative Party, who contended that the couples should have been dissolved. According to Brunsberg, the girls should have instead been placed in a residential care home for children, whereas their spouses should have been referred to the Migration Board’s asylum residence. Brunsberg argued that there was no other alternative, as all other solutions implied that Sweden was backtracking in its acceptance of child marriage.

Brunsberg also voiced doubt whether the underage girls really dare to say the truth about their situation when interrogated by Swedish authorities, suggesting that individual assessments in reality did not carry much weight. Nevertheless, Ingrid Hermansson argued that individual trials in cases of underage immigrants who are married will continue to be held, at least until the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SKL) comes up with different guidelines on the matter.
At present, Swedish legislation on child marriages seems to be applied differently in different municipalities. Earlier this year, the Administrative Court of Växjö ruled that a 14-year-old pregnant girl could be placed with her adult husband’s immigrant family, arguing that this was part of their culture. Remarkably, both the girl and her spouse were highly critical of the Swedish law banning underage marriage.
“WHEN YOU ARE THE MIDST OF WAR AND FLEEING FOR YOUR LIFE, YOU DO NOT THINK ABOUT THE LAWS IN FORCE IN THE COUNTRY YOU’RE HEADING TO,” THE GIRL TOLD THE SWEDISH TABLOID NEWSPAPER EXPRESSEN.

Previously, the Migration Board identified 132 married children, of them 129 girls and 3 boys, most of them coming from Syria, Iraq and Afghanisatan. Most of them were 16 or 17, while 14 of them were aged 15 or under. Part of the problem is that neither the Migration Board nor the Swedish municipalities have any routine to detect married minors. Therefore, no comprehensive assessments have been made.
In its current state, the Swedish marriage law has fetched a lot of criticism from, among others, Swedish star advocate and women’s rights campaigner Elisabeth Massi Fritz, who called this practice “unacceptable.” Earlier, the Swedish authorities, including Justice Minister Morgan Johansson and Minister of Children Åsa Regnér, have repeatedly pledged to review the law on child marriages.
What is the rest of Europe doing? Should a 14-year-old married girl who migrates to Europe be viewed as a child – or a spouse?
The issue has put European governments in a spin: forcing a policy U-turn in Denmark, new legislation in the Netherlands and an agonised debate in Germany.
Analysts say early marriage is often carried out in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey by families trying to protect girls from poverty or sexual exploitation. Elsewhere, poor families might marry off their young daughters in exchange for dowries.
The question is one of rights and protections – but which? When authorities stop minors cohabiting with their older spouses, are they combating child abuse or breaking up (often already traumatised) families?
Depending on where you go in Europe, you’ll find a radically different range of responses to the issue.
Denmark’s dilemma
Denmark’s response has swung first one way and then the other. In February, Integration Minister Inger Stojberg vowed to act after a review found dozens of cases of girls living with older men in asylum seekers’ accommodation – which the minister called “totally unacceptable”. Couples would require “exceptional reasons” to live together below the age of 18 (the legal age for marriage in Denmark) and no cohabitation would be allowed whatsoever if one party was below 15. But separation reportedly prompted two migrants under 18 to attempt suicide.
The policy was reversed earlier this year- with children as young as 14 reunited with their husbands – after the issue was raised with the Danish Immigration Service (DIS) by lawmaker Josephine Fock.
“It is completely outrageous. We are talking about people who have fled to Denmark who are being split from each other. Some of them have children together and investigating individual [asylum] cases takes an unbelievably long time,” Ms Fock told Metroxpress news service.
The DIS cited Denmark’s “international obligations” as the trigger for its policy change, concluding that enforcing separate living quarters would violate the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights , which guarantees the right to one’s “private and family life”. That has prompted conservative politicians to call for Denmark’s withdrawal from such treaties.
Dutch clampdown
In the Netherlands, policy has shifted in the other direction – with the government moving swiftly last year to close a legal loophole which allowed child brides to live with older husbands in asylum centres.
And politicians have grappled with the same dilemma elsewhere in Europe – though on the whole each country is dealing with just a handful of cases.
German indecision
The issue takes on much broader significance in Germany, which has greeted some 1.2 million migrants since last year under Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “open-door” policy. Here the authorities’ response has been inconsistent and, some claim, confused.
Data suggest that in Germany there are at least 1,000 marriages where one or both parties are under the legal marriage age of 18, of which more than half are in the southern state of Bavaria.
Legal marriage or state-sanctioned abuse?
The official confusion is reflected in one reported case: a 15-year-old Syrian girl married to her 21-year-old cousin. She was first separated from him in the city of Aschaffenburg, Bavaria, for reasons of child protection.Her husband lost an appeal to a family court, but the decision was eventually set aside by a regional court, which judged that the marriage should be recognised as it was legal in the country of origin.
But the city appealed, and the pair are now awaiting a judgment from Germany’s federal court.
In response, Germany’s justice ministry has set up a working group to agree a consistent response.
Ironically, the Family Affairs Minister Manuela Schwesig cited the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to argue against under-age cohabitation, claiming that violated children’s rights to “play, education and health”.
And the issue only threatens to become more pressing, despite the efforts of global campaign groups to eliminate child marriage – which they claim in many cases is in fact forced marriage.
Unicef figures from the vast Syrian refugee camps in Jordan suggest the proportion of registered marriages where the bride was under 18 rose from 12% in 2011 (roughly the same as the figure in pre-war Syria) to 18% in 2012, and as high as 25% by 2013.
And Jordan’s Chief Islamic Justice Department was recently quoted as saying child marriages represented about 35% of all marriages of Syrian refugees in 2015.
“There are a number of reasons why families are opting for child marriage for their daughters,” says charity Save the Children. “As refugees, Syrian families are reliant on dwindling resources and are lacking economic opportunities. At the same time, they are all too aware of the need to protect their daughters from the threat of sexual violence.”