Note: Scroll down to watch part one 

Immigration to the United Kingdom has been steadily rising over the past 20 years. Although the numbers fluctuate, hundreds of thousands more people now enter the UK every year than leave it, attracted by its (perceived) economic opportunities and political and personal freedoms.

Most Britons seem prepared to welcome them, providing they have entered legally and make an effort to integrate and contribute to society, which of course the vast majority do, but some are becoming less tolerant of the influx. Consequently, in the run up to this year's UK parliamentary elections, immigration has become a matter of great contention.

Fearful of appearing weak on the issue, political parties on right and left have clashed repeatedly about which of their respective administrations has set the toughest rules and the highest barriers to entry over the last two decades, with the current Conservative-led coalition government pointing at the barrage of regulations it has introduced in recent years - even though, of course, it has no legal powers to stop the movement of peoples from within the European Union (of which the UK is a member).

Yet as the rules get tougher, it means that people from outside the EU have to try that much harder to get in – and marriage to a partner already entitled to live in Britain is the easiest way.

 With This Passport I Thee Wed ... - Part one

Every year, over a quarter of a million weddings take place in the UK, mostly between couples with no other motive than a desire to seal a genuine commitment to each other. But among them are thousands of fakes – people who undertake a sham marriage that has been arranged simply because it makes it easier for one of the participants to stay in the country.

And therein lies the problem, not because some thousands of people are bending the rules to live in the UK (after all, many of them may ultimately prove to be an asset to their new country), but because, as demand has grown, the process has evolved into a multi-million dollar criminal enterprise that preys on the vulnerable.

Gabriella, is a Slovakian woman hoping to be sold as a bride to our reporters [Al Jazeera] 

In the first of a special two-part report, People & Power has been undercover to investigate Britain's sham marriage scams - and those making huge money from exploiting the poor and desperate.

As we discovered, the majority of the brides come from Eastern Europe. As EU citizens they can live in the UK legally and - once they are married - so too can their new husbands, mostly from Africa and Asia. In the middle are self-styled brokers who bring the women to Britain and coach the fake couples on how to play the system, lie to immigration officials and get away with it.

Our two undercover reporters, both of them British-Asians, spent several weeks posing as visiting Pakistani students who were facing deportation as their studies in the UK were coming to an end. Filming secretly, they approached brokers across Britain, claiming they were desperate to marry a European woman in order to get a visa and stay in the country. In all, they were introduced to seven potential brides in Sheffield, Rochdale and London.

In every case, the women were either prepared, or more probably leant on, to move in with a man they barely knew, on the spot in return for cash, and then go through the rigorous process of preparing all the paperwork needed to make a sham marriage pass off as a real one.

The women are promised good money and a new, prosperous and secure life in Britain. But they are being lied to - even about the fees they hope to earn. Though a would-be bridegroom might think the women are getting well paid, they are not. As Detective Inspector James Faulkner of Greater Manchester Police explained, the women rarely get much money.

"They might get a couple of hundred pounds ... Sometimes they come across willingly; other cases are trafficked into the UK. They're ultimately coming here hopefully for a better start, a better life, better conditions and once they are here are exploited to someone else's gain," Faulkner says. 

The brokers, meanwhile are making big profits. Mark Rimmer, one of the UK's leading registration officials and a government advisor on citizenship, told our production team that between 20,000 and 25,000 fake marriages take place in the UK annually. When a broker can pick up £16,000 ($25,000) in fees from a desperate marriage-for visa migrant, it is easy to see why this is a very lucrative - and increasingly sophisticated - business.

"There are professional criminals," said Rimmer. "Professional racketeers, who are probably involved in other stuff too, whether it be people trafficking, whether it's drugs, whether it's the sex industry." 

Mark Rimmer, one of the UK's leading registration officials, said that between 20,000 and 25,000 fake marriages take place in the UK annually
[Al Jazeera]

Earlier this year, the UK Home Office introduced new rules, making couples wait much longer before they could marry in the UK. Like other government announcements related to immigration it was billed as a major crackdown, but our reporters found that the new rules have made little difference. The brokers took the changes in their stride and adapted the way they operate. After all, they are not the ones in a hurry and there is always plenty of visa hungry migrants to count on.

In the second part of With This Passport I Thee Wed , our undercover reporters turned their attention to those who provide legal advice to migrants seeking visas - in particular two lawyers who were said to have a curious attitude to the UK's immigration laws. Again posing as Pakistani students who were about to undertake a fake marriage to secure a visa, an intent they were to make clear at the start of their secretly filmed conversations, the team made contact with two well-known UK lawyers (or solicitors as they are known in Britain), who widely advertise their expertise in immigration law. The advice the lawyers gave was illuminating to say the least. Both men -  whose identities are revealed in the film - did explicitly tell our reporters that fake marriages were illegal, but then, instead of bringing the conversation immediately to a close as might have been expected, continued to discuss the kinds of documents and proofs that someone would need to assemble to convince the authorities that a fake marriage was genuine.

People & Power showed this advice to Professor David Rosen, a prominent solicitor in the UK. He was shocked. "Well, it makes my blood boil, to be honest. Solicitors are meant to be upstanding members of society, we're meant to be knowing what's right and wrong and we're meant to be assisting people with the law with the administration of justice and the procedure of law, not explaining to people how to commit a criminal offence," Rosen said.

Throughout the course of several months investigation, our reporters had also been trying to make contact with a man called Yaseen – known on the streets as one of the UK's most prolific and successful fake marriage brokers. When they eventually tracked him down, they spun him their cover story about needing to marry quickly to get a visa. Shockingly, Yaseen claimed he could guarantee success because he was working with corrupt officials inside the UK government. For a fee of £12,000, Yaseen claimed, these officials would ensure the sham marriage was favourably reviewed and a visa to remain in the UK issued. "We can do it inside Home Office," he boasted. "With an inside job. I have a lot of people there."

If his claims are true then they raise some serious questions. Successive British governments - but most especially the most recent Conservative-led administration - have insisted they are getting tougher on this kind of illegal migration, by tightening up the rules and making it harder for brokers, migrants and EU citizens willing to get married for cash to get around the law. But if there is corruption even within the system meant to police those rules, then how effective can they really be?

Steve Davies, of the UK's Institute of Economic Affairs, is not impressed. "My view is that the government knows that there is a problem here. They know that they are, basically have a system of rules which are impossible to enforce but they can't see that they can do anything about it because it's politically impossible and so their default answer is to try and conceal what is going on and sweep it under the carpet, and hope that whoever comes in to office after them will have to actually clear up the mess."

The distorting effect of fake marriages on the UK immigration system and the suspicions and tougher rules they give rise to can only make it harder for those genuine migrants who want to enter Britain legally and make - as so many of them have - a real contribution to its society. But until a better answer to the problem is found, the criminal gangs who take huge sums of money from would-be migrants and exploit women from poorer parts of Europe will only continue to flourish.

Source: Al Jazeera