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Can cousin marriages be banned?

NRC HANDELSBLAD: The Dutch government wants to prohibit marriages between cousins, but experts wonder if that is possible.

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What if two cousins sleep together, have a baby and then want to get married. Is that allowed? What about this situation: a young Moroccan Dutch man marries his female cousin in Morocco and then brings her to the Netherlands. Is that permitted? Or rather: will that still be permitted in future?

According to Ashley Terlouw, professor of sociology of law at Radboud University in Nijmegen, it is doubtful whether such cases can be prohibited. Aside from the question of whether it is a good idea.

“Everyone's right to a family life is protected in section 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. If the Netherlands does not respect that, the Court in Strasbourg will have something to say about it.”

Experts have responded with surprise – and some with shock – to the plan that Deputy Minister for Justice Nebahat Albayrak announced last week to ban marriages between cousins. It is one of the measures aimed at reducing the number of so-called import brides (and grooms).

Increase in import marriages
Detailed information on the ban and its enforcement is expected in a few weeks, but it is already clear that the ban will apply to everyone, not just ethnic minorities among whom most marriages between cousins take place. The ban will not be imposed with retroactive effect.

“It does not seem right to me to apply family law to migration policy,” said Terlouw. “Moreover it is a measure that affects more people than you want it to.” Nor will the ban necessarily bring about any decline in marriage migration. "The Netherlands cannot ban marriages in other countries and will have to recognise most cases. Added to this is the fact that it is certainly not the case that all foreign marriages are between cousins."

A driving force behind the measure is the increase in the number of Dutch residents who 'import' a spouse from the country of their parents.

After years of decline, the number went up last year by thirty percent to 15,000. But the municipal records do not keep track of how many of these marriages involved cousins marrying each other.

According to researchers from Leiden University, a quarter of Turks and Moroccans marry a relative. A European survey, which only looked at second-generation immigrants, indicated that just over eight percent of Turks and six percent of Moroccans reported they were married to a cousin.

Does Albayrak have her facts straight?
Albayrak said last week that marriage between cousins was prohibited in the past, but that is a stubborn misconception said Frans van Poppel of the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute. Only since 1970 has the law permitted an uncle or aunt to marry their nephew or niece, but there has never been a ban on marriage between cousins, according to Van Poppel.

It seems as if Albayrak does not yet have all her facts straight, said Han Entzinger, professor of integration and migration studies at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

“I see that Moroccans and Turks are in fact bringing partners from abroad less frequently.” That is also due to the income requirement that the Netherlands has introduced. The partner here must now earn at least 120 percent of the minimum wage before he can bring a partner from abroad.

“Which incidentally has an adverse effect in that many young people stopped their college education to try and earn as much money as possible,” said Entzinger.

Proponents of a ban on marriage between cousins stress that they hope this ban will put a stop to forced marriages. Entzinger has serious doubts whether this goal will be achieved. He responds with questions: "What is defined as a forced marriage? Is an arranged marriage also forced? How many forced marriages actually take place? And how would such a ban be enforced?”

Health risks not significant
It seems as if politicians are seeking a new way to ban marriage between cousins. From 2003 there have been efforts to introduce the ban on grounds of health risks. This has failed time and again. Last year health minister Ab Klink decided that a ban would be disproportionate. Research has shown that parents who are related, including cousins, have a four percent chance of a child with a genetic defect. That risk is two percent for parents who are not related.

If politicians are really concerned about stopping forced marriages and preventing health risks, Albayrak should instead concentrate on better information provision, said the researchers. And on a harsh approach to those who impose forced marriages.

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