Lawmakers in Germany are under increased pressure to tackle the country’s growing trend of child marriages, renewing the debate over whether to allow Islamic Sharia law to supersede the country’s legal system when applied to its refugee population.
With the wave of more than 1.2 million migrants, mostly of the Islamic faith, coming in from Iraq and Syria, German courts are being forced to consider the legality of Muslim marriages that include girls sometimes as young as 13, Britain’s Sunday Times reported.
According to estimates, the number of refugee child marriages is currently at 1,000, although activists believe the figure is much higher.
In one case, authorities ruled in favor of Fatima, a pregnant 15-year-old Syrian refugee, allowing her husband, a fellow Syrian refugee more than double her age, to be accommodated in the same town so they could be near each other. Fatima told reporters that after her family escaped Syria for Turkey, she pleaded with them to marry her off to “the next man who is willing” so she could escape to Europe.
In Bavaria, there are over 700 refugee brides under the age of 18, including 160 under 16. Typically, German law does not permit marriage under 18, although with parental consent, the court can recognize the marriage of a 16-year-old.
In addition, the U.N. estimates that 51 percent of brides in Syrian refugee camps are underage, compared with just 13 percent at the start of the civil war.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has come under a barrage of criticism from European leaders holding her open-door policy on refugees responsible for the recent wave of critical terror attacks in Germany and throughout the continent.
Last month, within one week, there were four terror attacks in Germany.
When a court in Bamberg, Bavaria ruled in June to accept the validity of a marriage between a 21-year-old Syrian man and his 14-year-old cousin, the issue of child marriage was again brought to focus, along with the debate over the extent of Islamic law and customs that will be allowed by Western countries.
The marriage in question was conducted by a Muslim cleric in Syria, in accordance with Sharia law, but a German court separated the couple and made the girl a ward of the court. The court later accepted their appeal, ruling the marriage lawful as it has been legally binding under Syrian law and appointed the girl’s husband as her legal guardian. German child welfare laws mandate that children under 16 require a legal guardian.
That decision has left activists shocked.
“A husband cannot be the legal guardian of a child bride, because he is involved in a sexual relationship with her — a very obvious conflict of interests,” Monika Michell of the non-profit women’s rights organization “Terre des Femmes” told The Times.
While some campaigners are advocating for leniency on the right to child marriage as part of the asylum process, others have called for the enforcement of German law.
Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of “Karma Nirvana,” a U.K. charity focusing on helping women in forced marriages, called the Bavaria court ruling an “appalling decision.”
“Recognizing cultural traditions does not mean accepting the unacceptable. These are children and this is pedophilia,” Sanghera told The Times.
Earlier this year, the country’s justice minister Heiko Maas told The Bild newspaper that Germany would not recognize polygamous or underage marriages.
“We cannot tolerate forced marriages, above all, if they affect under-age girls,” he said, adding, “No-one who comes here has the right to put his cultural values or religious beliefs above our law.”
Others in Germany argue that the religious and cultural practices of the newcomers should be respected as part of their right to asylum.
Merkel recently spoke out against the custom of Muslim women wearing burqas in Germany, arguing that it would marginalize Muslim women and prevent them from integrating into German society.
“From my point of view, a completely covered woman has almost no chance of integrating herself in Germany,” Merkel told radio station Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland.