Airport security simulate 'trafficking' arrival in anti-FGM campaign
Identifying victims of female genital mutilation (FGM) is like "looking for the needle in the haystack", a Border Force official has said.
Border Force staff at Heathrow Airport simulated the arrival of a male passenger suspected of trafficking a young woman.
Ashley Robinson, Border Force assistant director at the airport, took part in the acted-out scene, which was watched by Karen Bradley, the minister for preventing abuse and exploitation.
Asked how difficult it is for staff to spot potential victims of FGM at the airport, Mr Robinson said: "It's a huge challenge. It's the equivalent of probably looking for the needle in the haystack."
He said intelligence grows daily and staff are becoming more aware of the routes and countries where FGM is carried out.
"But dealing with 70,000-80,000 arriving passengers a day and recognising that one or two of those people might be a potential victim ... it is challenging, but we're making sure people are properly trained, properly equipped and guided so they can recognise the signs or the indicators," he said.
The staff's display of how they deal with suspected victims came shortly after a report estimated that 4.7pc of women in the London borough of Southwark have suffered FGM, while one in 10 girls living there were born to mothers who have had it.
Outside the capital, the highest estimates were for Manchester, Slough, Bristol, Leicester and Birmingham, where rates range from 1.2 to 1.6%.
The report was by City University London and human rights organisation Equality Now.
Mr Robinson said staff are trained to look for an indicator that "something isn't quite right".
If the credibility of a passenger is in doubt, a combination of specialist trained officers - maybe a document fraud expert and someone from the safeguarding and trafficking team - are brought in to "triage" the passenger by asking additional questions or searching baggage, he said.
Mr Robinson said cases often start with an "initial seed of doubt" which could be based on the passenger's credibility.
The passenger might say they come from a particular part of the world but when questioned appear not to know much about it. Another scenario is if the passenger is not the rightful holder of the documents they are showing or there is something missing.
"As those seeds start to grow into something else you might then find out that the person's true intention isn't as they initially stated," he said.
Family members returning with young girls are likely to be asked extra questions by Border Force staff.
Mr Robinson said that as staff ask more questions they may discover that some type of medical procedure took place while they were abroad.
Other factors staff look out for is the time frame, whether it is outside of school time or during term time.
Mr Robinson said the simulated scene in which an official is suspicious of a man who has a young woman with him and attempts to speak for her by claiming she does not have good English is "still quite typical".
In the case of young women being trafficked for domestic servitude or sexual exploitation, Mr Robinson said staff see that type of relationship at Border Force desks a lot.
Last week Bedfordshire Police secured the first FGM protection order under a law which came into force that day.
The measure allows authorities to seize the passports of people they suspect are planning on taking girls abroad for mutilation. Breaching the order is a criminal offence.
The order was made at a court in Bedfordshire, and prevents the travel of two young girls who police believe may have been at risk of being taken to Africa and mutilated.
Asked if staff had noticed any changes in the last few days, Mr Robinson said it is "early days", adding: "We welcome any additional tool to help us combat the criminality behind modern-day slavery, and things like child abuse and FGM.
"We are retraining our staff in the new powers and legislation empowering them so they can go forward and use those powers if necessary."
A Government consultation is also being launched including details on making it mandatory for all professionals, including doctors, nurses and teachers, to report FGM in under-18s.
FGM is a procedure that sees the partial or total removal of the external female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
It is estimated that more than 20,000 girls under the age of 15 in the UK are at risk each year, yet very few cases are reported.