Gay people are being subjected to forced marriages to spouses of the opposite sex by families in the UK, police have warned amid a national crackdown.
Officers are being stationed at major airports across Britain this week in a bid to prevent victims being taken out of the country and raise awareness of how to seek help.
A record of 1,764 potential forced marriages were investigated in 2018, but police say they have not “scratched the surface” of the true figure because victims do not realise the practice is a crime, or are not willing or able to report relatives.
Children as young as two have been pledged to one another, according to figures released by the national Forced Marriage Unit, and cases have related to more than 110 countries.
Det Sgt Trudy Gittins, who leads on forced marriage at West Midlands Police, said the practice has carried down to the third generation of immigrant families living in the UK.
“One of the big focuses for us is the LGBT community,” she told The Independent. “It’s a real risk in some cultures to be outed or come out as gay if your family doesn’t approve.
“That can be a huge risk for forced marriage and what you also find is sham marriages, where gay people marry each other to placate the family but live their lives.”
Det Sgt Gittins said some families also believe in “corrective rape” – the practice of forcing a gay victim to have sex with someone of the opposite sex in an attempt to change their sexuality.
She highlighted the case of Jasvir Ginday, a British-Sikh gay man who murdered his wife six months after they were married in India in 2013.
She had been unaware of his sexuality and when she confronted him after discovering gay pornography, he strangled her and burnt her body.
At his trial, Ginday claimed his wife had threatened to “expose” his homosexuality to family and friends and he “panicked”.
A third of reported forced marriages involve under-18s, while the majority include under-25s and three quarters of victims from the UK are women.
Reported forced marriages have rocketed by 47 per cent in a year but officials believe that the prevalence has not increased, and the rise was caused by greater reporting.
The UK’s first successful prosecutions generated significant media coverage and the Home Office launched a major awareness campaign last year.
A Forced Marriage Unit report said the problem is “not specific to one country or culture” but the nations with the highest known prevalence are Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Somalia, Afghanistan and Romania.
Only 7 per cent of reported cases saw forced marriages take place within the UK, while the rest involved travel overseas.
In the first successful prosecution, a mother was jailed for forcing her daughter to marry an older relative in Pakistan who had raped her when she was 13.
The second prosecution was of a couple who tricked their 18-year-old daughter into travelling to Bangladesh to marry her first cousin, bear his child and enable him to obtain a British visa.
Det Sgt Gittins said victims who want to seek help can be discouraged by the prospect of their parents or relatives being prosecuted, or the concept of “shame and dishonour” for their family.
“If marriages don’t go ahead there might be consequences and problems for the wider family,” she added, saying that some mothers had threatened to kill themselves to force their children to go ahead with a marriage.
“You’ve still got deeply embedded cultures in the third generation, and people are still migrating who bring these beliefs with them.”
The officer said West Midlands Police investigates around two alleged force marriages a month, but investigations are frequently ended because victims withdraw or the required evidence cannot be gathered from foreign countries.
If a prosecution is not possible, authorities can impose forced marriage protection orders to prevent families taking steps towards non-consensual weddings.
More than 1,800 orders were imposed between 2008 and 2018.
Det Sgt Gittins urged schools to raise awareness about forced marriage at school, amid a campaign to train teachers, social workers, NHS staff, police, the Border Force and airline crews to spot warnings signs.
She spoke during the first ever national crackdown on forced marriage, which is seeing police officers stationed at airports for a week of patrols as the summer holidays start.
The operation, codenamed Limelight, has previously focused on female genital mutilation (FGM), breast ironing and other honour-based abuses.
Officials are targeting flights to high-prevalence countries to speak to passengers, observe any suspicious activity and gather intelligence.
At a briefing in London, Amanda Read MBE, the Border Force national lead for safeguarding, revealed how a forced marriage victim sought help at Heathrow Airport earlier this month.
“She managed to escape from her honeymoon and sought help at the airport,” she added. “We knew when the husband was coming back and intervened.”
On Tuesday, Metropolitan Police and Border Force officers were to patrol at Heathrow Airport alongside force marriage survivors, children’s services and Barnardo’s.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for forced marriage, Commander Ivan Balhatchet, said: “Police will investigate every case fully and take all available steps to detect and prosecute those involved in this heinous crime. Forcing someone to marry is punishable by up to seven years in prison.
“I urge anyone with concerns around forced marriage, or any other harmful practices affecting our children or vulnerable adults to come forward.”
Forced marriage sees a spouse married against their will or – in cases involving children or people with learning or mental difficulties – where they cannot consent.
It was made a specific criminal offence in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, but forced marriages are also linked to rape, violence, domestic abuse and coercive control.
It is illegal to force someone into marriage, deceive someone into going abroad for a marriage or arrange the marriage of someone without mental capacity.
Inspector Allen Davis, of the Metropolitan Police, said airports were the “last line of defence”.
“Teachers, nurses and social workers should all be having conversations about these issues,” he added. “We want to prevent it from happening in the first place.”