Mystery of Bradford's missing children: were they forced into marriages abroad?

They are the missing women of Bradford – the more than 200 teenage girls per year who disappear from their schools and fail to return from trips overseas. Where they go and whether they come back is not known, but is is feared that many are forced to marry abroad – and hundreds more like them across the country are vanishing every year.

No one knows the exact number of British women who are forced marry against their will, but a recent Home Office paper revealed that in 2006 in Bradford alone, 250 girls aged 13 to 16 were taken off their school rolls because they did not return from a visit abroad.

Campaigners say that, while not all these children will have been forced into marriage, there is a chance that such a fate awaited a small but tragic few. The Forced Marriage Unit, a joint Home Office and Foreign Office department that deals with such reports and repatriates many victims to the UK, deals with 5,000 callers a year. Of those, 300 are forced marriage cases: 15 per cent of them involving boys and 30 per cent of them minors, some as young as 11.

Shazia Qayum, 27, was one such victim. When she was 15, she was taken out of her Manchester school by her parents because she refused to marry a cousin in Pakistan. Despite being kept prisoner at home for more than a year, no one came looking for her. "Day after day, I sat in my room praying for someone to find me," she recalls. "I was convinced my school or the authorities would start asking questions but, to my knowledge, no one bothered."

Campaigners concede that the Government has begun taking steps to fight so-called "honour crime". New laws coming into force this summer will allow victims to obtain court injunctions against anyone trying to force them to marry. But critics say more attention must be paid to investigating what happens to Asian girls who drop out of school early.

"We have to start focusing more on the issue of girls going missing from school," says Jasvinder Sanghera, who was forced to marry at 14 and went on to found Karma Nirvana – a Derby-based group which helps domestic violence victims. "The Bradford figures are particularly alarming because, if that is how many girls are at risk in one city, imagine how many possible victims there could be across the country?"

Nazir Afzal, a Crown prosecutor specialising in honour crimes and forced marriages, believes alarm bells should ring whenever a child is withdrawn from a school early. "It's important not just to concentrate on the victims but also potential victims," he says. "Often, if a girl or boy is taken out of school early, it's a trigger that a forced marriage may be on the cards."

Some campaigners say the battle against forced marriage is often stymied by a reluctance to intervene in ethnic minority affairs for fear of accusations of racism or "Islamophobia". "I have been rabbiting on about this for years and have been labelled a racist and an Islamaphobe for doing so," says Ann Cryer, the Labour MP for the ethnically-mixed Bradford constituency of Keighley. "The problem is that it is just not in anyone's interest to pursue what is happening to these children.

"Parents, schools and the community simply do not want to look into it but that is just not satisfactory. I don't care who does it, but someone has to ask questions as to why these children are not in school."

Schools in predominantly Asian areas often refuse to put up advice posters because they are afraid of upsetting parents. Similarly, though the Forced Marriage Unit has produced guidelines for teachers, they are not obliged to take action or even to read the pamphlet.

Zedunnisa Hajee, headteacher of the Jaamiatul Imaam Muhammad Zakaria school for girls on the outskirts of Bradford, says she has yet to come across a case of forced marriage but she has procedures in place should it happen. She admits it does take place in the wider community but adds: "We liaise with police regularly and make sure the girls are all aware of their rights and that no one can force them to marry."

Bradford City Council disputed the Government's figures but said it identified 205 children in the city last year who were not in school. A spokesman added: "Of this number, 172 were tracked to an alternative destination or known to be on a roll at school. Thirty-three children out of a total school population in Bradford of 89,000 have been on the out-of-school register for more than two months."

'No one bothered to find out where I had gone' - Shazia Qayum, 27, from Derby

I remember like it was yesterday the day that I was taken out of school and told that I had to marry my cousin . I was 15 years old and came back one day to find my mother holding a photograph of her nephew in Pakistan. She said the marriage had already been arranged. If I refused ... they would ban me from continuing my education. I thought there was no way they'd get away with taking me out of school so I refused. My parents locked me up in the house. I was convinced that my school or the authorities would start asking questions but no one ever bothered to find out where I had disappeared. Day after day I sat in my room praying for someone to find me. I later found out that my parents had got our family doctor to write sick notes for me.When I was seventeen they said that we were going on holiday to Pakistan. Shortly after we got there, they told me we were going to go to a wedding. I asked who was getting married. They replied: "You". I met my husband on the day of the wedding. I remember pleading with him that I didn't want to be married to him and he simply said he didn't care. I returned to the UK with my parents who forced me to sponsorhis visa application. He came over to the UK. I phoned the police who came to collect me but said there was little they could do. I checked into a B&B and lived there for six months. Disowned by my family and all alone. I have never felt as desperately lonely.

'I was locked up until I agreed' - Imran Rehman, 33, Birmingham

I became engaged to my uncle's five-year-old daughter in Pakistan when I was 10. At the time, I thought it was just a big party for me and a little girl who had been dressed up in a wedding outfit.

When I was 15 my family showed me the pictures of that ceremony and said I was going to have to get married.

When I was 17 I was asked if I wanted to go to Pakistan for a holiday and I jumped at the chance. One day I was abducted and locked in a mosque for 15 days until I agreed to the marriage. I escaped and went back to England... [I married] the same girl when I was 24 because the family kept pressuring me. We lasted six weeks and I got disowned by my family. religion justifies forced marriages... it's forbidden in the Koran.