Latvian police contacted gardai last year after they received reports that young women from the country, who had come here for arranged marriages of convenience to young men from Pakistan and a number of African countries, had subsequently suffered trafficking, rape, false imprisonment and violence.
The Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) established Operation Charity and began cracking down on the large-scale scam to draw poor eastern European girls here for "convenience" or sham marriages. Ireland is a particular target for organised Pakistani criminals specialising in these marriages.
Gardai can bring prosecutions in cases where there is evidence of trafficking or sexual or physical violence. They can also prosecute for possessing fake documents. But because of a 2008 judgement by the European Court of Justice overruling our immigration laws, they cannot prosecute people over the sham marriages alone. The Baltic states brides are EU citizens and entitled to be here.
In the past, officers from the GNIB have uncovered a range of false documents, and computer and printing equipment used for forgery. The extent of the counterfeiting showed a high degree of organisation and is linked to the equally well organised operation of sham marriages between young men illegally in Ireland and girls from Baltic states who have come here to marry for cash.
The illicit operation has been running for years but was only picked up last year after a series of successful prosecutions in the UK by border police who uncovered and broke up several sham marriage rackets. In the past year, courts in Britain have handed down sentences of up to four years for "assisting unlawful immigration".
Ireland's equivalent law was successfully challenged in the European Court of Justice in 2008 in a case brought by eight immigrants, mostly African, who married European women while in Ireland.
The European Court found that our law in relation to using marriage to assist illegal immigration was contrary to the EU's "freedom of movement" laws. Immediately after the European Court ruling, the number of apparent marriages of convenience between illegal immigrants and girls from Baltic states shot up from 544 cases in 2008 to 1,100 cases last year.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, who has been lobbying support from other EU justice ministers for changes to EU law, commented recently that the "love affair between Pakistan and the Baltic States has no sign of abating".
In 2008, several young Pakistani men claiming to be members of a cricket team intent on a match in Ireland arrived here.
All had identical letters declaring them to be members of a legitimate cricket club in Pakistan, and travel documents. And, while none of them may have come here with the intention of seeking a bride, all were found to have used fake documentation.
If a young man coming here illegally plans to seek a bride of convenience, and is initially frustrated by the authorities because of illegal documentation, a marriage ceremony can still be achieved. Under the Registrar's Act, a couple has to give three months' notice of intended nuptials.
Gardai have found that the girls are being brought over from Latvia to appear at the Registrar's with their intended groom, filling in the required forms, and then leaving the country. When gardai visit the addresses they have given, they often find that the girls are back in Latvia "visiting family". They would subsequently reappear in time for the wedding.
However, the organisers of the racket found a legal loophole. If they apply to the Circuit Family Court or High Court, this three-month wait can be "abridged" and the couple can be married straight away. This has happened on several occasions, gardai have found, as the courts generally give permission. Thus it is relatively easy for an illegal immigrant to marry an EU native girl and thereby gain EU or Irish citizenship.
The price for a Pakistani immigrant to get a wife and then apply to stay here as a de facto EU citizen is said to be €10,000 to a "fixer".
The fixers work for organisations that advertise in publications throughout the Baltic states, looking for potential brides.
Most of the young women are in dire economic straits, gardai say. Latvia and the other Baltic states have been hit far harder than Ireland by the international economic recession, with major job losses. Unemployment rates are around 17 per cent, while state benefits are tiny compared to those available here and are stopped entirely after nine months. Public sector pay was cut in some instances by up to 40 per cent.
Poverty in the post-Soviet state has caused many young women to seek work in the sex trade. Sex tourism to Riga, the capital, has increased dramatically in recent years to the extent that Latvians themselves have described Riga as the "Baltic Bangkok".
Many of the girls responding to the ads are destitute and desperate, gardai say. The offer is generally of €2,000 in cash, plus flights and accommodation. Some of the Pakistani marriage gangs offer to pay up to €10,000, but gardai believe such large sums are never paid.
While most European states have viable laws to prevent sham marriages and stop unlawful immigration, Ireland and Denmark were
both effectively stopped by the European Court of Justice ruling in 2008 and both have been campaigning for change. In Denmark, the issue has become political as one of the partners in its coalition government is threatening to pull out unless preventative measures can be put in place.
In Denmark, as in Ireland, police can only stop the marriages through arrests and quick prosecutions for other immigration offences, such as possession of fake documents. Even then a criminal offence is not a bar to marriage, and the only route open to police is detention and deportation.
Earlier this month, Mr Ahern lobbied other EU justice ministers in side-bar meetings at a conference on international terrorism at Toledo in Spain. He told his fellow ministers that 30 per cent of all applications for recognition of marriages under EU directives on the freedom of movement -- arising from the case brought against Ireland -- were for people here illegally or on temporary or limited permission.
The minister told how the 2009 statistics on spouses show that, out of the 384 Pakistani applications, 110 were based on marriages to Latvian EU citizens, 50 were marriages to Polish citizens, and 47 marriages were to Estonians.
He said in general the Pakistani spouses tend to be students or former students with no immigration permission, while Nigerians are more than likely to be failed asylum seekers. Nigerians made up the next biggest group, with 115 applications for EU or Irish citizenship based on marriage to EU nationals.
Mr Ahern said: "Our immigration staff face great difficulties in combating this problem. It is extremely labour- intensive and all the advantages appear to lie with those abusing the system."
He said gardai were also witnessing another trend where the person who contracts a marriage in dubious circumstances seeks to bring in his dependent family members also.
Immigration gardai are meanwhile monitoring all applications by foreign nationals to marry EU citizens here. In each case they are investigating the nature of the immigrant's status, and if he is illegally here he will be pursued, they say.