Police are launching the first ever national crackdown on forced marriage at a number of airports as the school holidays get underway.
Officers from across England and Wales and the Border Force will join together in a national week of intensification (15 – 19 July) dubbed Operation Limelight. Partners like social services, the health service and charities are also involved and will be assisting police.
Limelight will focus on flights connecting the UK to destinations where there is a high prevalence of forced marriage. Tactics will include educating airport and airline staff to spot the signs and increase their confidence in reporting suspicious activity to police. Intelligence will be used to identify and seek victims who are about to leave or have just arrived back in the UK.
National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for forced marriage, Commander Ivan Balhatchet, said:
“Forced marriage is a violation of human rights. This week officers will be at airports using intelligence to intervene to prevent victims being taken abroad for a forced marriage. We’ll also be equipping airport staff to spot signs and encouraging them to report suspicions to us.
“The isolation, threats and violence that victims experience means that this is not something that can be tackled by police alone. That’s why our close partnership with public and third sector organisations during this operation will be key.”
In May 2019 the Home Office’s Forced Marriage Unit reported that it had provided support for 1,764 cases of suspected forced marriage in 2018. A third of cases, 574, involved children under the age of 18. Cases dealt with came from 74 different countries. The top three highest rates involved travel to Pakistan with 769 cases, Bangladesh with 157 cases and India with 110 cases. Forced marriage is a hidden crime, so the numbers are likely to be higher.
A forced marriage is one which one or both spouses do not, or cannot, agree to. Violence, threats and coercion are often involved. It is different from an arranged marriage where both parties can refuse to marry if they choose to.
Forced marriage was made a specific criminal offence in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, however other offences may also apply, like violence and coercive control.
Commander Ivan Balhatchet added:
“Police will investigate every case fully and take all available steps to detect and prosecute those involved in this heinous crime. Forcing someone to marry is punishable by up to seven years in prison.
“I urge anyone with concerns around forced marriage, or any other harmful practices affecting our children or vulnerable adults to come forward and tell police. We will treat each individual case sensitively and confidentially.”
Founder of the Freedom Charity, which works to eliminate forced marriage, Aneeta Prem, said:
“Freedom worked tirelessly to make forced marriage a criminal offence and targeting airports as the summer holidays get underway is key. We know it’s when potential victims are more likely to be taken abroad by their families to attend a wedding, not knowing that it is their own.
“Once someone is abroad it can take a great deal of effort to get them back to the UK safely and so this operation at airports is vital as it’s the last chance to save someone from a forced marriage.
“We know that forced marriage can lead to domestic abuse, rape, slavery and even murder.”
An NSPCC spokesman said: “Forcing children into marriage robs them of their childhood and can involve physical, sexual or emotional abuse.
“Sometimes children are, understandably, too frightened to speak up because they believe they have no control over the situation and they worry they will get their family into trouble or be disowned by their parents.
“But it’s so vital that they do speak up. We want them to know that they can always talk to Childline, no matter the hour, and there is always a counsellor ready to listen and to help.”