Leading article: We must not turn a blind eye to this cruelty

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The Independent Online

It is a shocking snapshot of a neglected problem. According to a Home Office consultation paper, more than 200 teenage girls – the vast majority of them Muslim – disappeared from Bradford in 2006. They were taken out of their schools one day and never returned. It is unclear what has happened to these children, but Asian women's support groups think it likely that a considerable number have been forced into marriage abroad. It is a phenomenon that seems geographically concentrated in Bradford because of its large Pakistani population, but it is reasonable to fear that the same thing is also going on around Britain.

Kidnapping schoolchildren and forcing them into marriage is utterly unacceptable and indeed criminal. Under the law, no British citizen can be coerced into marriage against his or her will. Like so-called "honour killings" and female genital mutilation, no arguments about "cultural traditions" or "different values" can justify it.

Yet it should be acknowledged that this is not a simple issue to deal with, precisely because of its cultural roots. Any attempt by the authorities to stamp out the practice of forced marriage is bound to run into opposition from distrustful families and fearful communities. It will not always be easy to distinguish between a (perfectly legal) arranged marriage and a forced one. And at the same time the authorities must be wary of feeding an atmosphere of suspicion and prejudice that exists towards Muslims in general in Britain.

But none of these difficulties excuses inaction. And it is deeply disturbing that a new report by the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC) finds that police officers and local councillors have been turning a blind eye to such abuses in the belief that Asian Britons are entitled to enforce their own "moral codes" on young women.

The CSC report argues that such problems are no longer an issue of first-generation immigrants importing attitudes from "back home" but are "indigenous and self-perpetuating" as they are sustained by third- and fourth-generation immigrants. It is not a problem likely to die out as immigrants become more settled. But it would be wrong to assume that there is no resistance from Muslims themselves to this practice. The Government's Forced Marriage Unit – a joint department within the Home Office and the Foreign Office – deals with forced marriages and organises repatriations and refuge for those women and girls caught up in the process. Thousands of British Muslims ask for their assistance every year. That is an encouraging sign.

Moreover, many British Muslims repudiate the idea that the concept of family "honour" justifies the use of violence or coercion. We should be wary of creating the impression that there is a homogenous Islamic community in the UK which favours forced marriage, just as it would be quite wrong to argue that all Muslim families condone the barbaric concept of the "honour killing". We must not lose sight of a fact that it is only a minority of the Muslim population who are engaged in these practices. Demonising the entire community would be entirely self-defeating.

As the CSC report points out, there are a number of relatively simple steps the authorities should be taking to tackle the issue, such as setting up a pool of police officers who specialise in the area, improving the flow of information to girls at risk of being forced into marriage and offering greater financial support to Asian women's rights groups.

The police and the authorities must be robust, but also sensitive, in tackling the problem of forced marriage. It will not be easy, but it is the only effective way of preventing more Muslim girls disappearing from British classrooms.