The Australian Federal Police (AFP) are asking school communities to learn the signs of forced marriage, saying parents, teachers and students are often the ones to first see a change in behaviour in victims of this practice.
The call, which comes as schools prepare to return for Term 1, is part of the AFP’s focus on disrupting human trafficking across Australia.
Common warning signs of forced marriage often include a family history of early marriage, excessive control by family or community, monitored communications, anxiety over travel, and fear of violence for not meeting expectations.
“Forced marriage is not limited to any cultural group, religion or ethnicity. Anyone can be a victim of forced marriage, regardless of their age, gender or sexual orientation,” AFP Commander Human Exploitation Helen Schneider said in a statement.
“While men and boys can be victims of forced marriage, most reported victims are young women and girls. The number one priority of the AFP is to ensure victims are safe and have access to all the support they need, with our teams professionally trained to manage sensitive cases.”
Schneider said that by educating the community of the prevalence of forced marriage and building awareness – particularly for those involved in school communities– it is hoped that more people will become empowered to seek help and report their experiences or suspicions to the AFP.
“Those closely involved with school-aged children are often best placed to identify the warning signs and indicators of human trafficking.”
Commander Schneider said a rise in the number of reports of human trafficking reports was encouraging.
“The AFP prioritises the wellbeing, personal safety and interests of victims-survivors in all human trafficking investigations,” she said.
“Our key focus is disrupting this complex crime – if victims are not comfortable in speaking directly to police there are many services and agencies which can provide support to help ensure their safety.”
What is human trafficking?
Human trafficking and slavery come in many forms, including forced marriage and servitude. Every form is a violation of human rights and involves the exploitation of people.
A forced marriage is when a person enters a marriage without freely and fully consenting, because they have been coerced, threatened, or deceived, or because they are incapable of understanding the nature and effect of a marriage ceremony, for reasons including age or mental capacity.
The number of human trafficking complaints to the AFP has increased year-on-year, with the AFP receiving 340 reports of offences – including forced marriage and servitude – across the 2022/23 financial year. This is an increase of 46 reports from the previous 2021/22 financial year, in which 294 reports were received in total.
Forced marriage, which has been illegal in Australia since 2013, is often a complex and underreported crime.
It can apply to legally recognized marriages, cultural or religious ceremonies, marriages which occur in Australia or where a person is taken overseas to be married, and can include the conduct of those involved in facilitating the forced marriage.
Prevention is better than cure
Schneider said disrupting human trafficking represents “an excellent outcome”, unlike other crime types which focus on prosecution.
“Instead of prosecuting a forced marriage, if we can prevent it from occurring in the first place, then it’s a positive outcome for would-be victims and investigators,” she said.
“The AFP encourages schools to have systems and services in place to support victims of human trafficking and forced marriage offences.”
How schools can help
If you suspect that you or another person is experiencing, or at risk of, forced marriage or human trafficking, call 131 AFP (237) or use the AFP’s human trafficking online information report. If you have immediate concerns for your safety, the safety of another person, or there is an emergency, dial Triple Zero (000).
The Support for Trafficked People Program is a key component of Australia’s response to support victims of human trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices, and is delivered nationally by the Australian Red Cross.
If you or someone you know is being exploited, help is available. For information and confidential advice please contact Australian Red Cross. Call 1800 113 015 or visit redcross.org.au/stpp.