Police fail to respond to forced marriages campaign

Two police forces with some of the country’s largest Asian populations are ignoring appeals to participate in a pioneering programme to tackle forced marriages.

Police chiefs in Birmingham and West Yorkshire have failed to reply to requests to raise awareness about the number of young boys and girls who often go missing during the summer holidays and are forced into unwanted marriages.

As a result Britain’s first “forced marriage roadshow” will be unable to visit two communities that are known to have some of the highest rates of forced marriages in the country.

The roadshow is being hosted by Karma Nirvana, a Derby based charity which is staffed by survivors of forced marriages.

Over the next three weeks male and female survivors are touring towns and cities with large Asian populations to speak out against the practice and give advice to police officers, care workers, health professionals and teachers detailing how to spot the warning signs that might indicate whether a child is in danger of being forced into a marriage overseas. They had hoped to visit Leeds, Bradford and Birmingham but are currently unable to do so.

On 28 April Jasvinder Sanghera, Karma Nirvana’s founder, wrote to police chiefs in eleven areas with large Asian communities asking for help in staging the roadshows. Forces in Northampton, Leicester, Hull, West London, Middlesbrough, Kent, Newcastle, Manchester and Derby have all agreed to help out, either by donating venues, sharing platforms or sending officers along for symbolic support. At the opening roadshow last month, Northamptonshire constabulary sent along its chief constable Adrian Lee.

But requests for help from West Midlands and West Yorkshire have largely been met with silence.

Last night Mrs Sanghera, who is herself a survivor of a forced marriage, said: “We’ve received absolutely no response whatsoever from West Midlands whilst West Yorkshire only got in contact with me once The Independent began making enquires last week. It’s very disheartening because some of our highest volume of calls come from West Midlands and West Yorkshire.”

West Yorkshire police wrote to Karma Nirvana after the Independent put Karma Nirvana’s allegations to the force. They have proposed holding a “seminar type meeting” for force specialists and invited guests to meet the charity’s forced marriage survivors. There was no commitment, however, to participate in the roadshow which only has three weeks left to run before the summer holidays kick in.

Karma Nirvana chose to host their roadshow in June because the period leading up to the summer holidays is always the busiest time of year for those working to protect people from forced marriages.

A home affairs select committee report in 2008 found that more than 2,000 students went missing from school registers in that year, with a large proportion of those thought to have been forced into a marriage.

Both Karma Nirvana’s own helpline and the government Forced Marriage Unit receive a large increase in calls throughout the summer period. In June last year, for instance, Karma Nirvana’s helpline received 769 calls, double that year's monthly average of around 350 calls.

Mrs Sanghera said she believes forced marriage and honour violence is still not being taken seriously enough in key areas where it is known to be prevalent.

“I think the indifference of these two police force’s request speaks volume of the way forced marriages and honour based violence is handled in these areas,” she said. “We never asked Northampton’s chief constable to come along but he did because he was keen to take a stance. If we are to change the attitudes of people on the front lines, police officers on the ground need to see clear leadership from their senior officers. I’ve chosen to speak out because I’m tired of my team saying they’re not getting good enough responses from these areas.”

As well as educating professional about how to spot warning signs, Karma Nirvana intends to use the roadshow to remind officials that new legislation exists to prevent someone from being taken abroad against their will. Since November 2008, under the Forced Marriage Act, officials, family members and even ordinary members of the public are able to apply for an injunction forbidding the removal of a child out the country if there is evidence that they are at risk.

So far more than 120 injunctions have been used to save children from forced marriages; the youngest of these was eight years old. The figure is twice what the Home Office had initially estimated.

Exact numbers of children who disappear are hard to come by, but in 2006 it was reported that 250 girls in Bradford alone were taken off the school roll and not returned to education the following autumn. According to Karma Nirvana, 33 of those girls have still not been accounted for. The Government's Forced Marriage Unit, which repatriates around 300 victims of forced marriages each year, says 42 per cent of those it saves are under 16.

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