Forcing someone into marriage could be made a criminal act under possible changes to British law, Prime Minister David Cameron said Monday.
Alongside moves aimed at cracking down on sham marriages used to cheat immigration rules, Cameron said he has asked interior ministry officials to discuss creating a new offense aimed at those who force people to marry against their will.
Currently, a potential victim of forced marriage can apply to a court for a protection order, which is intended to stop intimidation or violence and prevent someone from being sent overseas.
Although anyone breaching the order can be jailed for two years, the sanction is made under civil — not criminal — law and is rarely imposed. A panel of lawmakers found in May that only one person had been imprisoned under the legislation, which was introduced in 2008.
"Forced marriage is little more than slavery," Cameron said in a speech in central London. "To force someone into marriage is completely wrong, and I strongly believe this is a problem we should not shy away from addressing."
A government unit set up to investigate forced marriage cases handled 1,753 allegations in 2010 — more than half involving Britons with family ties to Pakistan, and most other incidents related to Bangladesh and India.
Cameron said forcing someone into marriage would be made a criminal act, unless there is a risk it would prevent victims from coming forward to authorities.
"Forced marriages, where someone — usually a woman — is conscripted into an unwanted union are tragic evidence of the continued mistreatment of women," said Charlotte Vere, a former Parliamentary candidate for Cameron's Conservative Party and founder of Women On, a British think tank on female rights.
The move was outlined alongside a new raft of measures aimed at meeting stringent targets to cut immigration rates.
Britain hopes to cut net immigration, which includes families of visa holders, from about 196,000 to below 100,000, by 2015. The country has already imposed tougher limits on the number of non-Europeans allowed to work in the U.K.
Cameron also suggested that some residents in Britain who are seeking visas for family members overseas may need to prove they have the financial resources to support their relatives.
Officials will discuss "whether a financial bond would be appropriate in some cases," Cameron said.
Lawmaker Keith Vaz, chairman of Parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee, said the proposal had been judged to be unworkable when suggested in the past. "A more effective method must be found in order for immigrants to pay for public services," he said.
Cameron also said he planned to introduce stricter tests for marriage visas, targeting migrants who conduct sham weddings to win access to the U.K.
A test on British culture and tradition, which migrants must pass to win citizenship rights, will be rewritten to include more questions on the country's history.
The exam currently includes sections on entitlement to welfare payments, the structure of government and education system.