•Make £15,000 per marriage
•Two held shortly before ceremony
It was supposed to be the happiest day of their lives. But instead of walking down the aisle with bouquets of flowers in their hands, two brides and their grooms were handcuffed and taken to a police station.
The grooms, whose identities have not been disclosed, are Nigerians, who engaged their Slovakian brides in a desperate bid to live in the United Kingdom (UK).
Their arrests were part of a coordinated operation to curb an international marriage scam. Such bogus marriages allow immigrants to stay in the UK.
If found guilty, the suspects could be sentenced to seven-year jail terms.
A combined team of police and immigration officers raided two homes and arrested the Slovakian brides and Nigerian grooms before they arrived at churches on Tuesday.
According to the Mail Online, four other men from Nigeria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, who are believed to be making up to £15,000 per sham wedding, were also arrested.
It was learnt that six Nigerian men were also being detained on suspected Immigration offences.
The arrests were centred around two gangs in Manchester and Bradford, West Yorkshire.
Immigration officers waited until the Nigerian gang members drove from Manchester to Bradford before their arrests in a fuel station, just hours before the two weddings were to take place.
Detective Sergeant Peter Gallagher, who led the operation, said: “We believe we have cracked an organised conspiracy in which marriage fixers and European brides were making money from Nigerian grooms desperate to find a way to stay in the UK.”
The churches, believed to have been targeted by the gangs are: St Philip and St James in Scholes, South Yorkshire, and St Lukes in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire.
UK Border Agency regional director, Jeremy Oppenheim said: “We will not tolerate Immigration abuse and will punish those who break the Immigration laws.
“Over recent years, we have clamped down on sham marriages introducing Certificates of Approval, family permits and encouraged registrars to highlight suspicious cases.
“That’s why suspected sham marriages fell from over 3,500 in 2004 to under 400 in 2008. Under the tougher rules, anyone trying to play the system can expect to face imprisonment for up to seven years.”
The arrest came on the heels of the arraignment of a vicar over alleged conspiracy to aid unlawful entry to the UK by helping to organise more than 180 ‘sham’ weddings for illegal immigrants earlier this month.
Reverend Alex Brown, 60, was arrested in a dawn raid on his rectory home in St Leonards, East Sussex, and his church, St Peters, 200 yards away.
He was accused of holding a ‘conveyor belt’ of services to allow African and Eastern European immigrants from outside the European Union (EU) to marry those with the right to stay in the UK.
When migrants complete bogus marriages, they can remain in Britain and move freely within the EU.
Those with residency rights in the UK, often from other EU countries, are paid up to £2,000 a time to take part in the sham weddings.
Labour toughened marriage laws in February 2005 after the number of suspect ceremonies – often arranged by criminal gangs who could earn £10,000 a time – reached 3,700 per year.
Migrants were made to get a special certificate to marry if they lived outside the EU, or had only limited rights to live in the UK.
Those with only three months’ leave to remain were routinely refused on the grounds that the ceremony was performed just to avoid removal from the country.
The number of sham weddings has since fallen to around 300 a year. But the crackdown was left in tatters after the Law Lords ruled it breaches migrants’ human rights.
According to Law Lords, “forcing a migrant to prove whether a relationship is genuine is arbitrary and unjust,” even if they were getting married only weeks before their permission to stay in Britain ran out.