Female Genital Mutilation – Operation Limelight

Since 2014, police and the UK Border Force have periodically targeted various ports in the UK, in an attempt to prevent and detect cases of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). These predominantly police led operations are known nationally as Operation Limelight. They are described by the Home Office as a “proactive airside operation looking at inbound and outbound flights to ‘countries of prevalence’ for FGM”. Originally a Metropolitan Police Service led initiative at Heathrow Airport, it has now been expanded to other parts of the UK. They have also been adopted at some airports in the US by the FBI and Homeland Security.

How does it work?

Limelight is a coordinated multi-agency operation, carried out over a short period, normally a week. The focus is placed on passengers travelling between the UK and FGM-prevalent countries. It is generally led by Police and the Border Agency, with the support of health professionals, social worker, NGO’s, port officials and carriers. Best practice is to ensure that survivors of FGM are also involved so they can provide strategic advice and support.

The operation aims to combine preventative work with enforcement. Families, groups and accompanied women and girls are taken to one side and spoken to about their trip. Baggage checks are also conducted, looking for articles associated with FGM. The questioning is handled sensitively, by trained personnel and NGO’s. By engaging with the passengers and raising awareness, the hope is that Limelight will help prevent future acts of FGM taking place. Advice and support are also on hand for any victims who make a disclosure at the time.

The operation normally runs within the summer holiday period, known as “the cutting season”. It is a crude term, but highlights that the school holiday periods are a prime time for girls and young women to be taken from, and returned to the UK for FGM. Whilst the focus is on FGM, officers also have an awareness of other potential safeguarding issues including trafficking, breast ironing and forced marriage. Many of those seeking to carry out FGM are aware that the authorities target this period and have therefore more recently sought to bring a ‘cutter’ into the UK, a person who specifically travels here to perform FGM, potentially on several girls during the period they are here.

Limelight has been well received in the media and we are only aware of minor criticisms. There has been a suggestion that targeting specific communities is discriminatory and potentially racist. However, the authorities would argue that this is about safeguarding vulnerable people and it would pointless targeting flights and communities where FGM doesn’t exist. It must be intelligence led, based on where FGM is most common. Others would argue that FGM is not as common as the authorities make out. The website, Shifting Sands is run by Brid Hehir, a retired health professional who has  worked in Africa. She is concerned that the UK authorities have overstated the problem in the UK and is worried that the response may cause more harm than good. In an article on her site, she is particularly critical of Op Limelight.

Whatever your thoughts are on Limelight, the initiative only runs only a few weeks of the year in a handful of locations. Whilst we personally feel it is a commendable enterprise, its overall impact is limited, both in enforcement and education. Preventing and detecting FGM is a difficult safeguarding problem. Therefore, it is highly important that professionals with safeguarding responsibilities are aware of the potential indicators and follow the ethos of what Limelight hopes to achieve. That’s is, identifying and supporting victims, recognising and safeguarding individuals at risk, and raising awareness in those communities to alter attitudes.

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By / Published On: August 21st, 2018 / Tags: , , / Categories: Analysis, Child Abuse, Safeguarding Hub Blog /

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