In the past year, more than 50 young Britons have been rescued from abroad after fleeing attempts by their families to force them into marriage.
Officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said yesterday that the Britons, who include some young men, have been brought back mainly from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, although some had returned from Mauritius, Somalia and Turkey.
The extent of the continued practice of forced marriage among some communities in Britain was revealed after the Government set up a special unit to investigate the issue last year. The unit has given some form of help to 200 young people at risk of forced marriage in the past 12 months.
Yesterday, the Home Office minister Angela Eagle and the Foreign Office minister Baroness Amos outlined measures to combat forced marriages, including giving £350,000 to British police forces to develop links with the overseas countries most involved.
Lady Amos said: "What we are trying to do is bring about a sea change in attitudes in relation to this matter."
Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, a representative of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said fears of causing offence had meant the issue had not been treated "with the seriousness it deserved".
He admitted: "At times we have been guilty in the past of walking on eggshells when there has been a serious crime committed."
Narina Anwar, 21, described yesterday how she and her two younger sisters had hatched a desperate plot to escape after being taken to Pakistan to marry against their will.
The sisters, from Bolton, Greater Manchester, were told they would be visiting sickly grandparents, but found themselves under house arrest and threatened with death if they tried to escape.
Ms Anwar said she was told she must marry a first cousin who worked as a farmer in rural Pakistan and did not speak English.
The sisters escaped when the family left the village to attend a funeral.
Ms Anwar said: "We had to cover our faces with shawls. We got a rickshaw and a taxi to Lahore where we found a phone to contact the British High Commission.
"We went past a few police officers during our escape but we knew not to trust them. We had heard of them sending girls back home."
While friends raised money for their air tickets home, the sisters lived in hiding in a Lahore hotel, knowing that angry family members were trying to track them down.
The women arrived back in Britain last December and have been found a home whose address is being kept secret. Ms Anwar is studying psychology at university and her 20-year-old sister is doing a degree in business studies. The youngest sister, aged 15, is at school.
Ms Anwar made contact with her parents by telephone last May and, since then, has slowly transformed her relationship with them.
She said: "I went on my own to visit them three or four weeks ago and it was uncomfortable. But last week I went to see them and we were relaxed and comfortable. My mum and dad were trying to reconcile [with me]. My dad even gave me his car. He was doing his best."
Ms Anwar, who is working part time with the Foreign Office's special unit on forced marriages, said she accepted that her parents and their children had grown up with different traditions.
She said: "Marriage for me was sacred and I believe in it. I knew [forced marriage] was against my religion and my rights. I was adamant that I would have a marriage of my choice."Reuse content