Detectives investigating a gang that sets up sham marriages for west African and Pakistani nationals in the UK have made seven arrests as part of a European crackdown.

Officers from the UK Border Agency (UKBA) took part in the operation today, which also saw 16 arrests in France and Portugal.

The teams were targeting a Portuguese gang suspected of providing ‘brides’ or ‘grooms’ for fake marriages in Britain and France.

Andy Radcliffe from UKBA said: “We believe we have disrupted a significant organised crime group suspected of being involved in organising sham marriages in the UK, France and Portugal.

”Today’s arrests were part of an 11-month investigation involving officers from three different countries.

”It’s vital that registry offices and churches report their suspicions to the UK Border Agency, which has teams of immigration and police officers in place to tackle this form of abuse.”

Arrests were made in London, Liverpool, Bristol and Kent.

Immigration Minister Mark Harper said: “Immigration crime is not victimless. The gangs involved in this activity often have links to serious organised crime and it places huge pressure on the public purse at a time when the country can least afford it.

”Our dedicated crime teams will continue to crack down on those who seek to abuse the immigration system.”

As well as seven people aged between 28 and 57, officers made another nine arrests that were unrelated to the European operation.

Two arrests were made at Bristol Register Office - a 34-year-old Pakistani man who had allegedly overstayed his visa, and a 52-year-old Polish man on suspicion of assisting unlawful immigration.

Two Portuguese women were held in east London on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud the Home Office and conspiracy to launder money; and a 24-year-old woman, also from Portugal, was arrested on suspicion of facilitation at an address in Barking, east London.

A 22-year-old Egyptian man was held on suspicion of fraud and deception, and a 36-year-old Syrian man was arrested for allegedly entering the country illegally in Maida Vale, west London.

In Rochester, Kent, a 31-year-old Pakistani who had allegedly overstayed his visa was detained, as well as another 32-year-old who was detained on suspicion of identity document offences.