Martin Beckford, London Telegraph, November 21, 2008
A special Government unit dedicated to stopping teenagers being married off by their families dealt with 300 cases in the first half of this year, up from 168 in the same period of 2007.
But the head of the Forced Marriage Unit, based at the Foreign Office, fears this could be just the tip of the iceberg as many victims are too scared to come forward and communities often close up to hide what is going on.
Wayne Ives also warned that heads of families are going to extreme lengths to get their children to marry, in some instances posing as officials to kidnap runaway brides or paying people to track them down.
His comments came as a new law comes into effect next week, which will make it easier for courts to stop ceremonies going ahead if it is feared that the bride and groom are being married against their wills.
A separate law will see the minimum age at which foreigners can come to Britain to get married being increased.
Despite the drive to tackle forced marriages, however, many feel it is still taboo because of fears of criticising immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh, who are involved in most cases.
Schools have refused to discuss so-called honour crimes in case they cause offence to ethnic minorities or religions, while MPs have been accused of failing to highlight forced marriage in case they lose Muslim votes.
In a recent speech to a Capita conference, Mr Ives told delegates: “We are talking about endemic abuse of the worst kind against young men and women which is happening right here and right now.”
He said the mere fact that a teenage girl is seen wearing a short skirt or having a boyfriend can be enough for her relatives to decide she has betrayed the family and must be forced to marry someone they deem acceptable, while others make disabled children get married so they can have a carer in a “warped form of altruism”.
In total, 90 per cent of cases dealt with in Britain involve Bangladeshi or Pakistani families, but investigators are uncovering growing numbers of forced marriages involving Iranians, Turks, Kurds and Somalis.
Thanks to increased awareness, the Forced Marriage Unit has had 1,200 inquiries this year, 300 of which are being investigated as possible cases.
But Mr Ives warned: “What we’ve seen is the tip of the iceberg.”
Mr Ives said it was unacceptable for people to tolerate forced marriage as just part of a different culture.
“It’s not simply a cultural ceremony. It’s people being abused, being raped.”
He said forced marriage had not been criminalised because it was believed victims would not want to see their relatives arrested.
But the new Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act, which comes into force on November 25, will allow anyone to demand a injunction against a wedding ceremony going ahead or an intended bride or groom being taken overseas. Anyone who breaches these court orders could be prosecuted.
In addition, on Nov 27 the minimum age at which foreigners can come to Britain to get married will rise from 18 to 21 before a marriage visa can be granted.
Mr Ives went on to describe the lengths some families will go to in order to track down those who they want to be married.
“Two uncles managed to dress up as airport officials and tried to arrest a girl when she arrived in Pakistan.
“In the UK you’re dealing with networks, bounty hunters are being used and particularly in the north taxi drivers are being asked to say ‘if you see this person let us know’.”
He said victims sometimes suffer even if they have the courage to come forward, as the authorities may not believe their stories and then contact their families, with the result that they suffer even worse abuse afterwards. If they run away from home, meanwhile, they are left isolated from their communities.