Holidays in hell

For most children, summer means sunshine and holidays. But for some youngsters, it signals the start of a life of restrictions and abuse. Embassy reports on a campaign to tackle forced marriage and how consuls can help.

Recently, London’s consuls were invited to the Foreign Office for the launch of three hard-hitting films depicting forced marriage to raise awareness of the risks to young people.

Commissioned by the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU), a joint FCO-Home Office initiative established in 2005, the films are part of the Right to Choose campaign which coincides with the start of the summer break, the peak time for when young people are taken overseas and forced into marriage.

The campaign follows an announcement by Prime Minister David Cameron that forced marriage will become a criminal offence in the UK.

Speaking at the launch, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt urged youngsters who feel they are at risk, or those working with youngsters who suspect a child of being forced into marriage, to seek immediate advice. “There may be only one chance to save yourself or someone else from a life they did not choose,” he said.

Shocking statistics
In the first six months of this year (2012) the FMU has given advice or support related to 747 possible forced marriage cases, with a 26% increase in the last month alone.

Amy Cumming, Joint Head of the FMU, is urging foreign consuls to engage with their diaspora communities to end this practice. She has also asked them to be vigilant when processing visas or passports of youngsters who may be at risk and to report anything suspicious to the FMU.

Describing the “devastating impact” of forced marriage, she said: “Many of the victims who contact us have experienced horrendous sexual and physical violence. They endure intense pressure in many forms – whether emotional, financial or otherwise. Forced marriage affects many communities and cultures so I’m strongly urging people to back the Right to Choose campaign.”

The following countries of origin have the highest number of reported cases of forced marriage: Pakistan (45.4%), Bangladesh (10.7%), UK (7.6%), India (6.5%), Afghanistan (2.4%), Turkey (1.6%), Sri Lanka (1.1%), Iran (1.1%), Yemen (0.8%), Iraq (0.9%), Egypt (0.9%), Nigeria (0.9%), Somalia (0.9), Saudi Arabia (0.7), Morocco (0.7%), The Gambia (0.7%), Jordan (0.4%), Kenya (0.3%). Other countries where the FMU has had cases included Algeria, Kuwait, Malawi, Malaysia, Mauritius, United Arab Emirates and Zimbabwe.

The FMU operates both inside the UK, where support is provided to any individual, and overseas, where staff at British consulates worldwide offer assistance to British nationals, including dual nationals.

From January to June this year, FCO staff working abroad were called upon to provide assistance in 46 cases of forced marriage. Over half of those cases (52%) involved 19-25 year-olds and a third (33%) involved under-18s. The majority of cases involved females, but 15% of victims were male.

Help from consuls
Tracing victims overseas can be difficult but consulates in the UK may be able to offer assistance to the FMU. This could help victims such as Khadijia (not her real name), a 14-year-old girl who was rescued from a forced marriage in Pakistan thanks to the actions of her tutor at school and the intervention of the British High Commission, which was able to track her down to a remote village in Pakistan. After talking to British consuls, Khadijia made the brave decision to leave her captors.

Many of these cases are urgent, and the longer it takes to track down a victim, the greater the likelihood of him or her being forced to marry and disappearing.

That fate awaited 18-year-old Saira, who travelled to Pakistan on holiday with her parents. But once there, her mobile phone and documents were taken away from her and she was put under emotional pressure to marry and was beaten.

Using a cousin’s phone, she raised the alarm with a friend in the UK that she was to marry in two weeks. The FMU was contacted and after enquiries the High Commission was able to establish Saira’s whereabouts. Consuls interviewed Saira alone, who confirmed that she was being held against her will. She was taken to a refuge and the consulate issued Saira’s emergency passport and flights home.

International cooperation
Because of the trans-national nature of forced marriage, an International Partnership Board has been set up and consuls from 15 different missions met on 31 May this year. A follow-up meeting will take place in September. The focus of the IPB is to share ideas, compare forced marriage legislation and build an international coalition towards ending the practice

To view the documentary, visit To watch the films, visit:

The FMU helpline 020 7008 0151 is confidential and open daily from 09.00-17.00 or email

For  info, visit