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The number of forced marriages being investigated in Britain has risen by 80 per cent this year with parents using "bounty hunters" and bogus missing persons campaigns in a desperate bid to track down runaway children and make them wed.

A special Government unit dedicated to stopping teenagers being married off by their families dealt with 300 cases in the first half of this year, up from 168 in the same period of 2007.

But the head of the Forced Marriage Unit, based at the Foreign Office, fears this could be just the tip of the iceberg as many victims are too scared to come forward and communities often close up to hide what is going on.

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