Why Sham Marriages Undermine Society

Sham marriages, or marriages of convenience as they are dubbed by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) are a public policy nightmare for officials. These marriages, created to gain entry into a country, usually take two forms: A couple pretends to be in a genuine relationship so that the sponsored partner can come to or stay in Canada, or one of the partners enters the relationship in good faith, while the other is using the relationship only to gain permanent status in Canada. However, these relationships usually dissolve shortly after the sponsored person arrives in Canada, effectively sidestepping immigration laws and undermining the coherence and objectives of the immigration system. As such, it is important that a country creates an effective legislative and enforcement framework to address this growing concern.

Consultations held by CIC indicate that 37% of the general public had sponsored a spouse or common-law partner to come to Canada. Of these people, 11% of participants self-identified as victims of marriage fraud, and a further 11% indicated that they had been sponsored and the marriage had broken up. Although it is difficult to calculate exact figures, in 2010, about 16% of the 46,300 immigration applications for spouses and partners were refused for various reasons, including that the relationship was not bona fide and approximately 1,000 cases of marriage fraud are reported to the government each year.

Sham marriages can have a devastating effect on victims, ranging from financial difficulties to even death in extreme situations. In order to curb this problem, the Canadian federal government is planning, later this year, on issuing new legislation modelled on the American and Australian systems where permanent status would be conditional upon living with a new spouse for a defined amount of time. This legislation will be coupled with a ban on the number of spouses a person can sponsor within a five year period.

Although this solution seems to be an effective way to minimize immigration fraud, the real challenge will be in ensuring effective implementation. Legitimate sponsored spouses will unduly feel the burden of this legislation when trying to navigate access to health care and ability to work if these issues are not readily resolved. Furthermore, some groups insist that such legislation will unfairly target Asian populations that that have a tradition of arranged marriages. Moreover, individuals in an abusive relationship may be further victimized because of a fear that their residency status could be revoked. In North America, a divorce rate near 50% within the first two years of marriage also means that these marriages would be held to a higher standard of success because of the potential of fraud.

The enforcement of sham marriages is also difficult because it is usually difficult to ascertain confessions from complicit individuals. However, between 2008 and 2010, through “Project Honeymoon” the Canada Border Services Agency began 39 formal investigations into fraud marriages and pressed charges in seven cases, three of which resulted in convictions.

At the end of day, the issue has become a struggle between the rights of Canadians and those seeking to immigrate to Canada. What remains to be seen is whether governments have the legal tools they need to enforce the standards that prevail in this country.

Photo Credit: mark sebastian