Probe into Irish-based marriage scam being used to obtain EU residency for illegal immigrants
EXCLUSIVE: Sex offenders and suspected Isil supporters among 'grooms' who tied knot in Ireland
Gardai are spearheading a Europe-wide investigation after uncovering an Irish-based international bogus marriage scheme being used to obtain EU residency for illegal immigrants, including sex offenders and suspected Isil supporters.
The Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) and the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) in Dublin are co-ordinating the massive probe in conjunction with Eurojust, Europol and police in several EU states, which is targeting the multi-million euro criminal enterprise facilitating sham marriages mostly between Asian men and female EU citizens.
The move was prompted after GNIB officers in Ireland smashed an elaborate network that had organised more than 2,100 fake registry office marriages here between non-EU males and non-Irish female EU citizens from 2011 to 2015.
As part of Operation Vantage detectives are now working with their colleagues in the UK and several EU states as the authorities try to trace and then deport hundreds of bogus 'grooms' from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Mauritius and Algeria.
Under EU law, once married the spouse is entitled to claim EU treaty rights which enables them to travel, live and work anywhere within the 28 states.
The men then divorce their fake partners, with many applying to secure family reunification rights for relatives living outside the EU.
Gardai have established that the majority of the non-Irish EU 'brides' - many of whom are described as being socially and economically vulnerable - were trafficked by criminals from 10 eastern EU states.
The Sunday Independent can reveal that the GNIB is investigating 970 marriages involving women from Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia and Portugal in liaison with the law enforcement agencies in those states.
It is understood that the investigation centres on marriages between Asian nationals and 200 Latvian, 91 Estonian and 181 Slovakian women. The bulk of the cases under investigation involve over 500 Portuguese 'brides'.
Facilitators who 'sourced' the women are being identified with the help of intelligence supplied by the gardai and will face criminal charges including human trafficking. The 'brides' may also face criminal prosecution in their home countries.
Operation Vantage has identified 16 Irish-based ringleaders involved in the racket which is estimated to have generated more than €20m for the gangs: each marriage cost between €15,000 and €20,000.
The women, however, were typically paid up to a paltry €3,000 for their services, often arriving in the country on the day of the ceremony and leaving immediately afterwards.
Apart from sourcing the 'brides' and arranging their travel, the fee included coaching the couples on how to convince the registrars that they were genuine, providing false documents and PPS numbers, organising the notification and registration of the marriage and the subsequent application for EU residency.
Last week the Operation Vantage trawl unearthed evidence that a trainee garda originally from Bangladesh had secured permanent EU residency rights after marrying a Lithuanian woman here in a fake marriage five years ago.
The 31-year-old and a friend reportedly sought asylum when they arrived in Ireland and soon after married two gay Lithuanian women who were in a relationship.
Assuming that he had escaped scrutiny, the Bangladeshi, who has no criminal record, was last year accepted into the gardai after satisfying the conditions of the recruitment process run by the Public Appointments Service.
When GNIB officers interviewed the would-be garda, his friend and their two 'wives' they all admitted to having been involved in a marriage of convenience. The men said they paid the women €15,000 each.
The Bangladeshi, who was due to pass out from Templemore this year, officially resigned last weekend and will now be deported.
Operation Vantage was launched in the summer of 2015 by Chief Supt Dave Dowling after officers noted a surge in the number of applications for asylum which were followed up with notifications of intention to marry a non-Irish EU national. In particular, there had been a spike in the number of applications from Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi men, with 760 giving notification to marry in the nine months from January 2015 alone.
On November 25, 2015 over 200 gardai carried out 42 searches across the country, resulting in several arrests and seizures of evidence. Officials from several government agencies including revenue, social protection and the INIS were also involved.
In one of the raids it was discovered that a small convenience store in Limerick was used to obtain residency rights for 135 Afghans based on fake marriages and bogus documents. All of the permissions to stay in the country were subsequently revoked.
When officers investigating a marriage between a Pakistani national and a Latvian woman visited another business address in Limerick last December, they found evidence of a further 11 fake marriages involving individuals using the same address.
The investigation also played a key role in identifying two Algerian men with proven links to Isil who were subsequently arrested and deported. The pair were part of a larger group of immigrants, many of whom had married Slovakian nationals living in Longford and Dublin.
The Operation Vantage team, based at Burgh Quay in Dublin, are in the process of deporting a number of the men's associates and 181 bogus marriages involving Slovakian women are under joint investigation by gardai and the Slovakian authorities.
In the course of the operation gardai have also identified three sex offenders who have applied to reside in the State. According to sources, the ongoing investigation has grown exponentially, with each inquiry uncovering further cases: the total number of individual files in the case is understood to have reached 2,115 so far.
A source told the Sunday Independent: "This is a hugely complex operation involving organised crime with tentacles throughout Europe.
"The investigation keeps spreading out and turning up new leads and a dedicated team is working on this full-time both here and with our colleagues in Eurojust, Europol and almost every national force in the EU."
Under current legislation, a non-EU national is eligible to claim full citizenship five years after marriage to an EU citizen. The GNIB has established that 1,135 bogus marriages took place between 2012 and 2013 and, along with the INIS, is working to block citizenship applications as they fall due for consideration.
Operation Vantage has proved to be a stunning success, resulting in a 77pc drop in notifications of marriage between non-EU and non-Irish EU citizens less than a year after it was launched.
The figures have now dwindled to negligible numbers, proving, say security sources, that the abuse was much more widespread and organised than originally thought.
Another 450 notified marriages did not take place due to objections by the INIS or the couples simply not turning up for the ceremony.
There has been a similar drop in the numbers seeking asylum and sources say the problem of sham marriages has moved to other European countries including Denmark, where the GNIB is now providing assistance and briefings.
Operation Vantage has led to over 100 arrests and the 16 ringleaders, both EU and non-EU nationals, who have been identified so far are either before the courts or in the process of deportation.
In addition, a further 183 deportation orders have been issued as part of the operation.