The number of forced marriages in England and Wales could be as high as 8,000 the Government disclosed yesterday as it unveiled plans to provide greater protection for victims.

Ministers said it was impossible to know the full extent of the problem but estimated that there could have been between 5,000 and 8,000 forced marriages in 2010.

A growing number of people are also contacting the Government unit offering help to victims and the number of people seeking assistance from the courts has been larger than previously predicted.

The marriage estimates were included in a Home Office consultation paper on whether to make forced marriage a specific criminal offence.

David Cameron has already said he wants to toughen the law against forced marriage by making it a criminal offence but there are fears such a move will be counter-productive.

The consultation said that making forced marriage a criminal offence would act as a deterrent and send a clear signal to families both in England and abroad. It warned that creating a new offence might deter victims from seeking help because they feared their families will be prosecuted.

The paper added that some parents might take their children abroad and force them to marry to avoid prosecution in Britain.

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, 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 sensitivies should not stop us doing more to tackle it.?

Mrs May said the Home Office wanted to hear from victims of forced marriages and from charities and others supporting them whether a new criminal offence will help or hinder.

The Government?s forced marriage unit provided advice and support in 1,700 cases last year, the consultation said. It added that the unit was aware of cases in Aghanistan, north and east Africa, Bangladesh, India, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey.

The consultation said application for forced marriage protection orders, which are aimed at preventing them taking place, are rising. A total of 339 order were recorded between November 2008 when the order came into operation and June 2011.

Many of the elements of forcing someone to marry against their will are criminal offences including kidnapping, abduction, falsh imprisonment, assault and harassment, the consultation said.

It said making it a specfic crime could act as a deterrent, encourage young people to stand up to their parents and make is easier for police to identify victims. But it also said victims may stop seeking help because they fear members of their family will be prosecuted and receive a criminal conviction.

It said prosecution, of the threat of prosecution, might make it more difficult for victims to be reconciled with their families and warns that because court proceedings take a long time victims may be pressurised to withdraw allegations.

The paper added that exising criminal offences can be used in relation to forced marriage and points out that the Government is committed to avoiding the creation of unneccsary new crimes.

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