ORGANISED crime gangs are targeting Peterborough in an immigration scam involving sex trafficking.
The city has seen a “pulse” of sham marriages which investigators are beginning to link with the modern-day slave trade.
UK Border Agency (UKBA) officers believe the criminal networks have been using churches and the register office in the region for some years but vicars and staff are now getting wise to the tactic.
They are working with UKBA staff to clamp down on sham marriages which can see a fixer earn between £8,000 and £15,000 per wedding.
Sam Bullimore, an assistant director of UKBA, said: “What we have seen are pulses of activity across the country including Peterborough.
“It is fair to say churches in the area have been targeted. But I am not convinced the local population is responsible. The intelligence suggests it is criminal gangs coming into the area.
“Once they pick up that they can get away with it in one particular church they make hay while the sun shines.
“There is a popular perception that sham marriages can be funny and there are some amusing stories behind them.
“But there is a darker side to this. We have recently made the link between sham marriages and the sex trade.
“Some of these women are duped into thinking they are coming to the UK just to take part in a sham marriage and will then be paid and can go home.
“But we are starting to see cases where the woman is being forced to stay and work in the sex trade. This is a very serious issue.”
The Government tasked the UKBA with cracking down on the issue and as a result 53 sham marriage investigations were launched nationwide last summer.
Of those, 12 were in the region including Peterborough and ended in 38 arrests. Between November 2010 and January 2011, the UKBA carried out another 22 operations in the area.
More specific details for Peterborough are not available but at least eight people have been jailed in the city for sham marriage offences since November.
A Diocese of Peterborough spokesman said they are working with UKBA officials to combat the problem.
He said: “We work closely with the authorities but couples who can prove residence in a parish have a legal right to get married in a church.
“Vicars do all they can stop this practice but it is difficult to spot very good forged documents.”
Mark Sandhu, head of customer services at Peterborough City Council, said: “We work very closely with the UKBA and provide regular and thorough training to our registrars to help spot the tell-tale signs of a sham marriage.”