Drop in marriages of convenience recorded

  • Marriage is becoming less and less popular in Belgium.
  • The same goes for foreigners who abuse the system in order to obtain a residence permit.
  • They often make do with “cohabitation of convenience” instead.
  • New legislation should make this a thing of the past.

 

“I’ve met spouses-to-be who didn’t even know the date of birth or the first names of their supposed partner’s brothers,” recalls Monique Cassart. Just like her counterparts, the Anderlecht deputy mayor and registrar must, before accepting to perform a marriage ceremony, make sure that the future married couple does indeed have a real life together. In other words, that they are not entering into a marriage of convenience, with the ultimate goal of enabling one of the false lovers, usually a foreign national, to get hold of a Belgian residence permit, or even government benefits.

 

“We’ve been fighting this phenomenon for years. Last December, we even went so far as to set up a marriage of convenience unit within our local police force,” explains Cassart, who has noted “a slight decrease in these types of irregular marriages in Anderlecht since 2008.”

 

This drop is also visible at national level in statistics recently unveiled by the Belgian College of Public Prosecutors. The number of simulated marriage cases taken up by prosecutors has gone from 5,770 in 2011 to 4,711 in 2012, which corresponds to a decrease of 25 %. However, the prosecutor’s office in Mons, a benchmark within the College when it comes to marriages of convenience, warns against taking the figures at face value at this stage: “It’s still difficult to rationally explain the reason behind this drop.”

 

As far as the Belgian Immigration Office is concerned, there is no doubt about it: “Since 2009, municipalities, police services, prosecutor’s offices, the Immigration Office, the courts and the Foreign Affairs ministry have been exchanging information in an attempt to combat marriages of convenience. This plan is now starting to bear fruit.” It has therefore become practically impossible for false marriage participants to obtain the go-ahead from a registrar if a different registrar in another municipality has already rejected them.

 

Sanctions broadened and enhanced

At that point, the fraudulent pair tend to turn their back on marriage, much like Belgian society as a whole, in which the number of couples tying the knot has declined by 14 % in five years – in 2012, just 91,566 people got married. In order to escape the anti-marriage of convenience checks, those seeking to cheat the system instead make a declaration of legal cohabitation.

 

“To slip through the net, more and more false marriage applicants attempt to get hold a certificate of legal cohabitation,” states the Immigration Office. Going down this path can also result in a resident’s permit for a foreigner living in the country illegally, but it is not the subject of a preliminary investigation by municipal services. At least, not yet.

 

In a few weeks’ time, a veritable arsenal of enhanced legislation will come into effect. Municipalities will be asked to uncover the truth behind cohabitants’ supposed joint life together. Couples who have knowingly signed up for a “cohabitation of convenience” will face the same penalties – now augmented – as those pursuing fake marriages. These changes will be accompanied by an awareness campaign laying out the general risks of marriages of convenience.

 

JULIEN BOSSELER

 

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