18 July 2014

Africa: British Police Target Airports in Anti-FGM Operation

London — As British schools close for summer holidays, police will be trying to combat female genital mutilation by intercepting potential victims and offenders at airports.

The government says more than 20,000 girls living in Britain may be at risk. FGM is a ritual practised by some ethnic minority communities, and involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia.

Considered by the U.N. to be torture, it is most prevalent in Africa and is also practiced in some parts of Asia and the Middle East.

Detective Inspector Andrew Richardson of Sussex Police, which is responsible for Gatwick Airport, told Thomson Reuters Foundation: "We are targeting outbound flights over the next two weeks, then inbound flights at the end of the school holidays."

A similar exercise took place in May as part of the ongoing "Operation Limelight".

Officers plan to put up posters at airports and hand out leaflets making it clear that FGM is a crime in Britain. They will also approach passengers with high-risk profiles, such as young girls travelling with older women to or from countries where FGM is widely practiced.

FGM survivors have been helping police, briefing officers and accompanying them to airports to talk to passengers.

DISTRESS AND PAIN

"It is not a question you can skirt around," said Richardson. "From our experience everyone was very open and willing to speak about it. People said they haven't had it done, but are aware of other people who have." He added that officers look for girls with difficulty walking, and signs of distress and severe pain.

Intelligence suggests some girls are subjected to FGM when their parents take them abroad during the holidays to visit extended family. They may be taken at the start of the school break to allow time for their wounds to heal by the time they return home, Sussex Police said in a statement.

On May 8, a 38-year-old woman was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit FGM at London's Heathrow Airport, having arrived on a flight from Sierra Leone. A 13-year-old girl was taken into the care of social services.

FGM has been illegal in Britain since 1985, and since 2003 it has been illegal to take girls abroad to have it done. However, the first prosecution was only announced earlier this year.

On June 4, the justice minister announced plans to extend the legislation to include foreign nationals "habitually resident" in the country.

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