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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 March 2008, 18:35 GMT
Fears for 2,000 'missing' pupils
Mark Easton
Home Affairs Editor

Forced Marriage Unit campaign poster
MPs fear forced marriages could be behind some missing pupils
More than 2,000 children are missing from school registers, a committee of MPs investigating the issue of forced marriages has been told.

The Home Affairs Select Committee demanded the information after hearing that 33 youngsters were missing from education in Bradford.

Members suspected some of the children may have been taken abroad and forced to marry against their will.

The new figures cover a further 14 local authorities in England and show a total of 2,089 children are not in school.

Different ways

Councils stress the number reflects pupils who are missing from suitable education and does not necessarily mean any are at risk.

However, the Department of Children, Schools and Families said some of the youngsters may be "at risk of harm".

Since February last year, local authorities have had a duty to ensure if a child is registered as missing from the school roll, they know why that child is not in class.

However, the scale of the problem and the regional variation suggests different authorities are dealing with the issue in different ways.

How else does one explain why Leeds has more than 500 missing children while Middlesbrough has just 23?

The Home Affairs Select Committee has decided to expand its inquiry having received the figures.

'Tip of iceberg'

They have asked to speak to the British entry clearance officer based in Islamabad in Pakistan to see if any of the 2,000 children are listed as having arrived there.

While the government's Forced Marriage Unit sees 300 cases in the UK annually, a separate study suggests 300 reports each year in the town of Luton alone.

I obviously wasn't coming to school any more. But nobody looked for me.

While precise figures are difficult to obtain, the author of the Home Office-funded Luton study said the statistics available almost certainly represented the "tip of the iceberg".

Management consultant Dr Nazia Khanum said if one assumed reporting levels in rape and domestic violence cases - at around 10-12% - were similar to reporting levels in forced marriages, it could be concluded that there were about 3,000 forced marriages a year in the UK.

Dr Khanum, whose report is being published on Monday, said although the figures were estimates, "it still indicates the scale of the problem of forced marriages, which are unacceptable, and condemned by all religions".

'Patriarchal system'

Forced marriages are not the same as arranged marriages, in which both parties consent.

Dr Khanum added: "Forced marriage ... is a part of a patriarchal system where parents believe they know what is best for their children."

Meanwhile, the Home Affairs Select Committee has called for more investigation into the figures it obtained on children missing from school.

Some MPs said they suspected young girls, and occasionally boys, were being taken out of education and forced to marry against their will - often because they were deemed to have become too Westernised.

If you know anyone who may be forced into marriage overseas, you can call the government's Forced Marriage Unit on 020 7008 0151. From outside the UK, dial +44 20 7008 0151. All calls are treated in confidence.


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