At 4am this Friday morning, officers from Essex police and UK Border Force set off for the Stansted airport as part of Operation Limelight.
Limelight is in its third year. It takes place at various airports targeting in and outbound flights to 'countries of prevalence' for female genital mutilation (FGM). It undertakes a combination of preventative work and intelligence-led checks on passengers.
Over the holiday periods, girls are particularly vulnerable to being taken abroad - often to the family's country of origin and subjected to mutilation.
The flight destinations today were Portugal, Italy and Turkey, selected in conjunction with UK Border Force on the basis that they are either hub destinations for onwards flights to high risk countries, or involve known routes taken by people to avoid detection sometimes with two different airlines.
The purpose of today's operation was education and awareness raising.
On previous operations plain clothes officers have spoken to those who seemed most relevant - families with young girls. However, today officers were in uniform and spoke to everyone on each flight. People seemed more receptive, perhaps feeling they could not so easily turn away.
The officers explained what FGM is, that it is illegal in this country and that, crucially, it is illegal to take girls aboard for FGM.
The officers spoke to people confidently and sensitively. Some passengers were aware of what it is although all seemed to appreciate having their understanding enhanced. Others said they had little or no idea what it was about. Many were surprised by its prevalence in high risk countries. A woman on route to Portugal said she was sure it was still practiced in Portugal. One group of teachers with their own children said they were well aware of it as they teach modules in schools. For others, school provides no information. One man, travelling with his girlfriend, who seemed to trivialise the officers efforts was eventually politely disabused of any notion of FGM being a frivolous issue.
The officers will monitor incoming flights at the end of the holidays. This is a much tougher exercise as it is not just awareness raising but trying to identify girls who may have been subjected to FGM.
PC Fiona Clements, who led today's operation, explained that the new and next challenge is incoming cutters. Ironically and sadly the relative success of awareness raising about taking girls abroad means families are now pursuing other methods of practising FGM without leaving the country.
One methods is for families to organise "FGM parties" for which a cutter will specifically travel into this country. Presumably this way of doing it is also far cheaper than flying a family elsewhere.
Incoming cutters are terribly difficult to identify. Some are relatives of one of the girls, seemingly on a benign family trip. Others may be nurses or midwifes - as one officer noted, traditionally thought of as being caring trustworthy people.
There is currently no straightforward legal means by which they can be dealt with. This autumn the Met Police applied to the High Court to try to block the entry of a high profile Sierra Leone woman, referred to as a "celebrity cutter". The Judge had to refuse it saying it was for the Secretary of State and in the interim the woman got wind of the Met's application and decided not to come to this country.
Normally however the police have to rely on intelligence or luck with bag searches which may revela traditional equipment for FGM, knives, razors and "blessed" water.
Police are also now aware that similar equipment is being sent into the country via the post, presumably for use by domestic based cutters.
But there are also other aspects of harmful cultural practices which are barely known of and for which there is no specific protection, such as breast ironing, a practice in which a girl's breasts are beaten and burned to stop them developing. The UN estimates that 3.8m girls worldwide are affected. Its especially prevalent in West African countries and it is thought that approximately 1000 girls in the UK have been subjected to the practice. Public awareness is very low but the effects are devastating.
Today awareness of FGM was split amongst the people spoken to today but reception of the information was positive and the officers felt the day had gone really well . Ideally these operations are multiagency with police and border forced accompanied by health experts and grass roots NGOs or activists.
To improve their work officers said they needed more intelligence about where FGM is being perpetrated and for communities ot help identify what else can be done. Ultimately that requires more resources and better education - particularly in schools aimed at boys as well as girls.
Activists know that publicly displayed information makes a difference. Survivors have spoken openly about how they stopped the practice for their daughters on seeing information in public places. Essex police at Stanstead were able to give a leaflet to each passenger but other police forces have had a lot of resistance at other air ports to running operations - and this must be commercial reasons.
Officers spoke to passengers on four flights today. But as school break up thousands of flights are leaving this country and with them thousands of girls some of whom are at vulnerable age and headed to countries of high risk.
Amelia Nice is a barrister practising in international family law including FGM related work, and extraditionSuggest a correction