Forced Marriages Warning Comes Too Late, Says Labour's Chris Bryant

Wedding bells ring across the country in August, with couples keen to have their special day in the sunshine.

But August is also the peak time for young teens in the UK to be forced into marriage, during the long summer school break, the government has warned.

The Home Office campaign launch this weekend, after schools have broken up for the summer, has been criticised for being "too late" by Labour, who said the issue should have been raised in term time.

Summer marks a peak in reports of forced marriage cases, when youngsters can be taken on "holiday", unaware of the real purpose of the trip.

Between June and August last year, the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU), a joint operation by the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, received more than 400 reports.

Crime prevention minister Jeremy Browne said: "The rise in forced marriage reports over the school holidays is shocking.

"Teenagers expecting their GCSE or A-level results should be embarking on a bright future, not condemned to a marriage with someone they have never met and do not want to marry.

"This is a serious abuse of human rights and that is why we are legislating to make it illegal.

"My message to young people who feel they are at risk is, please come forward - you do not have to suffer in silence, there is help available and it can be stopped."

But shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant said that while he applaud the aim, the warnings to teachers, doctors and airport staff to be on alert had come rather too late.

"Forcing a young person into taking part in a sham marriage is a despicable act that the Government should be doing everything in its power to prevent, and raising awareness of these issues is to be welcomed," he said.

"But I can't help thinking that, given it's been weeks since pupils and teachers started their holidays, it might have been more useful if Jeremy Browne and his Home Office colleagues had thought to do this before schools broke up for the summer."

The forced marriage unit is handing out "Marriage: it's your choice" cards to provide help and information to potential victims, pointing them to confidential advice.

The FMU also advises on warning signs to look out for:

  • extended absence from school/college, truancy, drop in academic performance, low motivation, excessive parental restriction and control of movements, and history of siblings leaving education early to marry
  • poor attendance in the workplace, poor performance, parental control of income and limited career choices
  • evidence of self-harm, treatment for depression, attempted suicide, social isolation, eating disorders or substance abuse
  • evidence of family disputes/conflict, domestic violence/abuse or running away from home

Aneeta Prem, the founder of Freedom Charity, said: "The 'Marriage: it's your choice' card is a concise and accessible way to receive information that could save someone's life.

"It's vital that young people travelling abroad for a family wedding this summer realise it could be their own wedding they'll be going to - and know who they should contact for help should they find themselves in danger."

The cards remind young people to speak to police or airline staff if they find themselves at an airport with nowhere to turn.

The FMU earlier this year revealed it helped in 1,485 cases of possible forced marriage in 2012, involving 60 countries across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America.

The statistics for last year show that of the 744 cases where the age was known, more than 600 involved people under the age of 26.

A new law making forced marriage illegal is currently going through Parliament and is expected to become law in March next year.

At the moment it is not an specific offence, and police are forced to use charges such as kidnapping, false imprisonment, assault, harassment and making threats to kill.

Foreign Office minister Mark Simmonds said: "The school summer holidays are the time when young people are at the highest risk of being taken overseas for a forced marriage.

"Our 'Marriage: it's your choice' cards highlights that people who are at risk of forced marriage know they can turn to our Forced Marriage Unit for support - whether they are at home or are already abroad."

The Forced Marriage Unit has a confidential helpline and can be contacted for advice on 020 7008 0151