A special investigation by the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) into sham Irish marriages as a means of obtaining EU residency rights for illegal immigrants was originally intended to last no more than a year.
Operation Vantage was launched in 2015 after officers noted a surge in the number of asylum applicants issuing notifications of intention to marry non-Irish EU-national women here. In particular, there was a spike in the number of applications from Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi men, with 760 giving notification to marry between January and September 2015.
But four years later the investigation has mushroomed into a major international probe of immigration fraud rackets that are generating vast profits for criminal gangs across the EU.
The most recent breakthrough in the investigation uncovered evidence of a major scam in which 180 non-EU nationals are suspected of obtaining taxi licences using fraudulent public service vehicle (PSV) applications despite having no legal status here.
On March 5, the GNIB, in co-operation with several other State agencies, searched 10 addresses across Dublin. So far 134 cases have been identified where illegal immigrants fraudulently obtained taxi licences, with 64 licences already revoked and 25 individuals issued with deportation orders.
The swoops also uncovered evidence that at least 15 of the suspects had taken part in sham marriages in order to obtain EU rights. However, sources say that the numbers involved in the taxi scam are likely to rise after investigators uncovered a considerable volume of documentary evidence during the search operation.
Operation Vantage has been a major success and places the GNIB at the centre of immigrant fraud investigation in the EU with officers now working with and advising colleagues in several EU states.
When the investigation was first launched it uncovered in excess of 2,500 bogus marriages between non-EU males and non-Irish female EU citizens, which had generated more than €30m for the criminals who facilitated the scam.
It resulted in the deportation of over 100 individuals, including two suspected members of Isil and three sex offenders.
In the first year of the investigation, 450 “couples” who had booked registry office marriages simply disappeared.
Gardaí have been working closely with immigration authorities across the EU in the process of tracing and then deporting hundreds of the bogus ‘grooms’, who also include Afghan, Mauritian and Algerian nationals. Under EU law, once he is married to an EU citizen, the spouse is entitled to claim EU treaty rights thus enabling them to travel, live and work anywhere within the 28 states. The men then divorce their fake partners and begin the process of applying to secure family reunification rights for relatives living outside the union.
Gardaí have established that the majority of the EU ‘brides’ – socially and economically vulnerable women – were trafficked by criminals from 10 Eastern EU states. A total of 970 marriages involved women from Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia and Portugal, who were paid €3,000, often arriving in the country on the day of the ceremony and leaving immediately afterwards.
The GNIB identified 16 Irish-based ring leaders involved in the scam which charged between €15,000 and €20,000 for each marriage.
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; and the subsequent application for EU residency.
The investigation led to the resignation of a trainee garda, originally from Bangladesh, who had secured EU residency rights after marrying a Lithuanian woman here in 2013. The 31-year-old and a friend sought asylum when they arrived in Ireland but soon after married two Lithuanian women who were in a gay relationship.
The number of marriages between non-EU men and non-Irish EU women have since dropped to negligible numbers after the GNIB began advising registrars on how to identify suspicious nuptials.
However, sources say that while the gangs have since begun recruiting Irish women to marry asylum seekers, as a consequence of Operation Vantage there is much closer scrutiny for possible fraud and the numbers remain low.
As Operation Vantage widened, gardaí also uncovered a second international scam which used Irish-registered front companies to gain residency rights for illegal immigrants that was costing the taxpayer €20m every year. One operation involved the use of more than 1,200 business names that were registered in Ireland since 2014 by UK-based criminals posing as immigration lawyers.
The GNIB suspects that the scam assisted thousands of non-EU nationals, mostly from the Indian sub-continent, to obtain EU residency rights in order to bypass UK domestic immigration laws in the run-up to Brexit.
Specifically, it was designed to get around tougher UK laws which imposed stringent financial requirements on UK nationals who wanted to secure immigration rights for non-EU relatives. Criminals exploited a loophole in EU law created by a European Court of Justice ruling known as the ‘Surinder Singh’ case. Under the ruling, any EU citizen who exercised EU treaty rights in another member state for three months or more could then transfer those rights to the UK without being subject to the financial restrictions.
Closing down this particular racket has saved the State more than €40m in accommodation costs but that figure does not include the cost to the State of health, education and social welfare payments.