British police and border security will share intelligence on female genital mutilation (FGM) with US counterparts as part of a drive to increase prosecutions and prevent abuse. Information on flight paths and investigations will be shared between the UK authorities and US agencies, including the FBI and Department of Homeland Security. “We do a lot of work with the US anyway regarding serious and organised crime – it’s one of the best relationships we have. If they [US agencies] have an investigation, intelligence, or tactics that they’ve used, we’ll be able to share that,” Ivan Balhatchet, National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for FGM. There are elements of organised crime involved in FGM, Balhatchet said, but under-reporting and a lack of intelligence are major barriers for security services. “There are cutters, who are being paid,” he said. “People are being paid to commit child abuse. In any other walk of life, you would call that organised crime. It’s not all like that –- there’s [also] inter-familial [abuse].”
In May, campaigners welcomed news of two forced marriage convictions in one week. But while FGM has been illegal in the UK for more than three decades, there has not yet been a successful prosecution. Between January and March this year, there were 1,030 newly recorded cases of FGM in England, according to NHS figures. Figures from the NPCC show that FGM protection orders, which safeguard actual or potential victims under civil law, were granted 220 times between 2015, when they were introduced, to the end of March 2018. A pilot project is investigating how to improve the effectiveness of these orders, which until recently were not collated centrally, has been launched by the Ministry of Justice and the NPCC. FGM is believed to be taking place both abroad and in the UK, with Border Force staff also tracking suspicious packages. “Sometimes you’ll see beads used for ceremonies, razor blades, or different liquids, sometimes you might see sanitary towels,” said Amanda Read, national operational lead for safeguarding at the Border Force, who said staff routinely look for indicators of FGM.
To mark the agreement with US agencies, officers held intelligence-gathering operations at airports across the UK, as well as JFK Airport in New York. Teams from Operation Limelight, which aims to raise awareness at airports and is carried out by border officials, police and charities, targeted inbound flights from countries where FGM and forced marriage are prevalent. Staff look for anything unusual – a person’s demeanour, if they are uncomfortable walking, or if someone else is holding their passport. During an operation at Heathrow on Thursday, specialist teams identified three people who might be at risk. Their names, addresses and school details will be forwarded to local agencies such as social services. A six-year-old girl’s details were taken for a referral after staff found that she couldn’t or wouldn’t speak to them. Polly Harrar, the founder of the Sharan Project, which supports survivors of forced marriages and “honour crimes,” said that while teams will focus on particular flights, they approach all travellers so that no community feels they are being singled out. Speaking from Heathrow, where she was assisting Operation Limelight, she said there should be a far greater focus on prevention. “Part of that is education, part of it is sustainable working within the community, so that it’s community-led, not dictated,” she added.
One mother, Afuwa, who arrived in the UK with her family following a holiday in Uganda, said she welcomed efforts by agencies to raise awareness. She said she was aware of communities practising FGM in northern Uganda. “That’s their culture,” she said, although she added that it is not something her family believes in. Dr Leyla Hussein, a trained psychotherapist and founder of the Dahlia project, a counselling service for FGM survivors, said survivors needed existing support was sporadic and needed to be greatly improved. “We still don’t have safe houses that girls can go to. They usually end up in a hospital by themselves, extremely isolated, and they end up going back to their families anyway,” said Hussein. The moment you go against parents you have gone against all your wider family. The battle will just get bigger. We need to ensure they have cared.”
Credit: Rebecca Ratcliffe for The Guardian, 7 September 2018.