The number of forced marriages involving young women from Britain being taken abroad to wed is likely far higher than first thought, an official report said Tuesday.
While a government unit investigating forced marriage deals with just 300 cases a year, the true figure could be up to 4,000, the Home Office-funded study into the issue said.
There are 300 inquiries about the issue every year in one town alone, said the report's author Dr. Nazia Khanum, citing figures for Luton, a town with a high immigrant population.
"It's a reasonable assumption that it is the tip of the iceberg," she said, noting that with rape and domestic violence only 10 to 12 percent of cases are thought to be reported.
Sayeeda Warsi, a Muslim member of the House of Lords, said forced marriages should be treated as a criminal offence like domestic violence, to protect young women from ethnic minorities.
"As a society we draw a line in the sand," she told GMTV. "This is not a culturally sensitive issue, this is an abhorrent act which we must stand together on."
Khanum added: "Forced marriage has nothing to do with religion. It is a part of a patriarchal system where parents believe they know what is best for their children."
But the government argues that criminalising forced marriage would only drive it underground.
Home Office Minister Alan West told the House of Lords Monday: "The difficulty is that these things happen in families. We have taken a lot of advice and talked to many people.
"There is a feeling that the crime would go even further underground because people generally do not want to put their families through this."
A separate study to be released Tuesday highlights how many children have suddenly stopped attending school, amid fears that some have been forced into marriages against their will.
The BBC said it had been told by one teenage Pakistani girl that she was withdrawn from school aged 13, taken to Pakistan and forced to marry a man who raped her.
She blamed the authorities for failing to launch a search for her. "I think they let me down," she said. "I did still secretly think when I was in Pakistan, the school might search for me.
"Nobody looked for me. It was horrific."
It was disclosed this month that 33 girls were missing from schools in Bradford despite efforts to locate them. It is feared they have been forced into marriages.