FGM/C Shifting Sands

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Operation Limelight must be scrapped

Published 11 September 2018 Associated Categories Ways forward
Scrap Operation Limelight

Despite that officials consider the overall impact of Operation Limelight limited, representatives still regularly operate at border posts during longer school holidays, during what some derogatorily called the FGM ‘cutting season’. 

Since 2014, British police and the border force have periodically targeted ports in the UK in an attempt to prevent and detect cases of FGM. Some also search for victims of forced marriage and breast ironing.

Operation Limelight is 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 (MET) led initiative at Heathrow Airport, it has expanded to other parts of the UK and to the US.

The programme was piloted last year at John F. Kennedy International Airport and was deemed “incredibly successful.” Success wasn’t defined however.

This year, British and US police and border agencies agreed to share intelligence about when and where victims might be taken for FGM, and to help identify cutters/perpetrators. Information on flight paths and investigations is being shared with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.

Operation Limelight’s lead at Newark airport said “Enforcement is a key piece here, but so is outreach and prevention. This is why we have partnered with other government agencies, NGOs, and, most importantly, survivors and advocates from the community to share knowledge and resources so we may collectively end this practice.”

An operation was carried out at the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson international airport in May. And at Washington’s Dulles and Newark airports in June.  JFK airport participated also.

In the UK, the initiative runs a few weeks of the year in specific locations. Last week’s targeted hubs included Heathrow, Stansted, Gatwick, Luton, Manchester, Leeds Bradford airports and Eurostar stations. ‘Don’t want to fly? Tell us why’ notices are also displayed in toilet cubicles. These encourage potential victims to call 101 or to talk to a member of staff. Wearing a metal spoon in underwear is also recommended. This would alert security staff to a problem and secure the person’s safety.

During the operation, officials approach people traveling from countries where they believe FGM to be common and encourage them to report concerns. Staff are looking for anything unusual in a person’s demeanour, whether they are uncomfortable walking, standing or someone else is holding their passport.

The MET’s operation was at London’s Heathrow airport where they spoke to an estimated 500 people. To avoid accusations of racism,  all travellers were approached.

Three children considered ‘at risk’ were identified at Heathrow. Their names, addresses and school details will be forwarded to social services.  ‘A six-year-old girl’s details were taken for referral after staff found that she couldn’t or wouldn’t speak to them.’ 

Staff at Stansted airport spoke to over 1,700 passengers. They were supported by Social Services, Essex County Council, Public Protection Officers and charity representatives including from Barnardo’s.

Barnardo’s is particularly supportive of Operation Limelight because “(w)e know the pressure for girls to undergo female genital mutilation very often comes from family members overseas, and results in children being flown abroad so it can take place. The National FGM Centre, run in partnership with Barnardo’s and the Local Government Association, works with affected communities in the UK to prevent this procedure.”

Leeds Bradford airport focussed on raising awareness amongst staff and passengers but did not elaborate.

Interestingly, despite that UK officials consider Operation Limelight ‘a commendable enterprise’, they admit ‘its overall impact is limited, both in enforcement and education’.

They recognise that they are heavily reliant on professionals with safeguarding responsibilities, who need to be aware of potential indicators.  And to ‘follow the ethos of what Limelight hopes to achieve – identifying and supporting victims, recognising and safeguarding individuals at risk, and raising awareness in those communities to alter attitudes’.

All professionals who work with children have a safeguarding responsibility. And specific registered professionals must, by law, report known or actual FGM in under 18’s directly to the police. So all have been on red alert in regard to FGM for years now.

Yet the highly desired but elusive conviction for FGM has not materialised, despite agencies best efforts. And they are frequently supported by activists/survivors, competing for media exposure with increasingly far-fetched insights and theories.

The latest, by Leyla Hussein, is gleaned from her psychotherapy practice. It suggests that British girls are ‘being pressured into FGM in UK playgrounds’. Another, Nimco Ali, wants all girls born to mothers who happened to have undergone FGM, to be put on a new FGM protection register until they reach 18. She’d like specific mothers to be automatically considered guilty of pre-thought crimes. How undemocratic.

With friends like these, and operations like Limelight, innocent people from ‘countries of prevalence’ who are simply taking advantage of long school holidays to take children to see relatives overseas, don’t need enemies. Operation Limelight must be scrapped and activists should  engage their brains before opening their mouths.

A related piece about how FGM is being misquoted to mislead the public can be accessed here.

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About the Author -

Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a nurse and midwife in Africa where she worked for almost four years. She encountered FGM/C in Ethiopia. She then moved to London where she worked in the National Health Service as a midwife, community nurse, health visitor, reproductive and sexual health nurse and manager over a period of 30 years. She did not encounter FGM/C during that time despite working with immigrant communities who are reported to practice it still. She is puzzled by the current reported prevalence of the practice, the official response and associated activism. And is worried that they might cause more harm than good.


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