Australia has introduced tough new laws that could see people who send young girls overseas for forced marriages jailed for up to 25 years. Justice Minister Chris Ellison says the marriages are tantamount to sexual trafficking, and will be treated as a criminal offense.
Australia hopes the new laws will help to combat the trade in young brides.
Officials in Canberra have confirmed that a dozen girls, all aged under 18, have approached the Australian embassy in Beirut recently asking for help after being brought to Lebanon against their wishes. They said their families had taken them there to get married to older men.
One 14-year-old Australian girl was quoted as saying she was promised a holiday in Lebanon by her father, but was actually forced to marry an older cousin there who imprisoned her in his home. She managed to escape and sought help from Australian diplomats. After sensitive negotiations between officials and her family members, the girl was eventually allowed to return to Australia.
Government officials in Canberra have said this is not an isolated case. They believe that some Muslim parents, immigrants from Lebanon and other countries, have sent their teenage daughters overseas as a way of protecting them from promiscuity and Western influences at home in Australia.
Justice Minister Chris Ellison says forcing children into marriage in foreign countries will not be tolerated.
"This is an outrageous activity, one we won't tolerate and we're intent on stamping out," said Mr. Ellison. "It is an offense to traffic a young person, a juvenile, overseas for sexual servitude or indeed bondage, and a forced marriage could well constitute that sort of behavior. Well, if a child has been taken illegally from Australia, we certainly seek to have that child returned to Australia, and there are international conventions that deal with that."
There are some 300,000 Muslims in Australia from 70 countries. The Lebanese, who mainly began emigrating during their country's civil war in the 1970's and '80's, comprise one of the largest national groups.
Muslim organizations in Australia have condemned sending teenagers abroad for marriage. They have insisted that while the practice may have been commonplace a decade ago, it is now rare. A senior Muslim cleric here in Sydney said he considered the practice to be "against Islam."
The precise numbers of Australian girls caught up in this trafficking of young brides in not clear. The government has estimated informally that in recent years, hundreds of teenagers have been forced into marriages overseas.
The new laws that came into force Wednesday aim to deter this illegal trade, with jail sentences of up to 25 years for anyone caught sending children to foreign countries for forced marriages.