Data puts cases between 5,000 and 8,000 as government considers making coerced unions a criminal offence
There are at least 5,000 to 8,000 cases of forced marriage in England every year but it is impossible to know the full scale of the problem, according to the Home Office.
The estimate is contained in the official consultation paper published on Monday on whether making forced marriage a specific criminal offence will help better protect victims.
David Cameron has already signalled that he wants to strengthen the law against forced marriage by making it a criminal offence to breach a civil forced marriage protection order, but ministers are considering going further by making it a separate criminal offence.
The home secretary, Theresa May, said: "Marriage should be one of the happiest events in a person's life, but shockingly thousands of people a year are forced into marriage against their will.
"It is an appalling form of abuse and perceived cultural sensitivities should not stop us doing more to tackle it."
She said the Home Office wanted to hear from victims of forced marriages and from charities and others supporting them on whether a specific new criminal offence would help or hinder.
The consultation paper says that many if not all the elements of forcing someone to marry against their will are already criminal offences, including kidnapping and abduction, false imprisonment, harassment and assault.
It says that creating a specific offence of forced marriage could act as a deterrent, empower young people to challenge their parents and make it easier for police and health and social services to identify victims.
But it also acknowledges concerns that victims may stop asking for help because they fear their families will be prosecuted, that parents may take their children abroad to marry and it may make future reconciliations more difficult.
The paper cites official research estimating that there are 5,000 to 8,000 reported cases of forced marriage in England each year. They include cases from Afghanistan, north and east Africa, Bangladesh, India, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey.
But it adds that while the full scale of the problem is not known, the number of reported cases is rising year on year. The government's forced marriage unit, which provides direct assistance to victims, dealt with 1,618 cases in 2008, 1,682 in 2009 and 1,735 in 2010.