The already controversial issue of the European migrant crisis has worsened as countries face the problem of granting asylum to girls who got married in Syria but fall below the age of consent in their adopted country.
The issue of Syrian child brides has been highlighted in the Netherlands by the disappearance of a nine-month pregnant 14 year old girl and her 24 year old husband, reports The Independent. Fatema Alkasem had been staying in the Ter Apel asylum centre before she left on 31 August and police fear she may require medical care.
Dutch asylum centres are reported to be housing 20 child brides between the ages of 13 and 15. On average three a week now arrive in the country, reports Die Welt, with at least 34 underage wives seeking asylum last year (according to leaked official papers). Twenty-two girls wanted to enter the Netherlands via ‘family reunification’ – with two being 13 years old and another two only 14.
They have been given legal permission to join their older partners as the country recognises marriages involving young teenagers if officially registered in their country of origin. Some argue such recognition condones pedophilia as the age of sexual consent in the Netherlands is 16.
By way of contrast, since 2012 Switzerland has refused to recognise child marriage. In Germany child brides are treated as unaccompanied minors and provisionally cared for by the Youth Welfare Office. During asylum processing they can apply for marriage recognition, but that is a decision taken depending on individual circumstance.
The problem is not limited to the small number who made it to Europe. Save the Children has also witnessed an “alarming increase” in the number of Syrian child brides within refugee communities in Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon.
The Dutch government is now amending family laws, effective from December, so reunification applications only recognise marriages when both partners are at least 18 years old.
The Dutch Labour MP, Attje Kuiken, told the BBC:
“A 12-year-old girl with a 40-year-old-man – that is not a marriage, that is abuse. We’re talking about really young children, girls 12, 13 years old. I want to protect these children. The government should take them into foster care and protect them, because before the new law comes into force, they can still be subject to abuse.”
Monika Michell, spokeswoman on honour based violence for women’s rights organisation Terre des Femmes, is even more stark in her condemnation of child marriage. She says that although each girl experiences it differently the consequences can be devastating, leading her to conclude:
“Forced marriage is a continuous rape.”