Karl McDonald *
A Muslim religious leader in Ireland has called for a debate around the recognition of polygamous families after a court refused to recognise the second wife of a Lebanese refugee who has become a naturalised citizen.
Dr Ali Selim of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland said families fleeing warzones are “disintegrating” because of laws in this country that don’t exist at home.
“Now is not yesterday’s situation,” he told .
“People are forced to leave their country, where they used to live in accordance with the legislation of that country.”
“This raises questions we have not faced before.”
The principle of equality
Irish Supreme Court justices decided that recognising polygamous marriage would be contrary to the constitutional principle of equality.
The Lebanese man, who married both women before arriving in Ireland, will have his first marriage recognised by the Irish state, but not the second, even though the second wife was the first to arrive in the country.
There are children by both marriages.
Some were accepted as asylum seekers in their own right and some were brought through family reunification rules.
Polygamy is illegal in the UK and throughout Europe and pre-existing polygamous marriages are rarely given status, whether arriving through immigration channels or as refugees.
This risks destroying family units that are already established, says Dr Selim.
‘Do we only recognise part of the family?’
“Family is the foundation of the whole society,” he says.
“When we have a good family, we have a good society. So when a family is established in a certain way in accordance with the legislation of their country, and then they are forced to leave, what do we say?
“Do we say that we only recognise part of that family, and deprive some of the children of their father, deprive a wife of her husband?
“Or do we say that we need to have a legal debate about this situation?”
It is estimated that there are around 20,000 polygamous families in the United Kingdom, although the British state does not recognise the marriages and has a policy of trying to stop polygamous households from forming.
De facto recognition in Britain
However, there is some de facto recognition of the unions when it comes to social welfare in the UK. Second wives are blocked from receiving benefits that might be owed to a single mother.
Polygamy is permitted in Islam, with men allowed to marry up to four women as long as they spend equal time and money on each one. It is legal to varying degrees in more than 50 countries, the majority of them Muslim.
Dr Selim stresses that his appeal is specifically about refugee families who were forced from their homes.
He does not advocate any liberalisation of polygamy laws for others in Ireland.
He adds that a European recommendation could help to clear up the situation in many countries which have accepted refugees.