Specialist police teams have joined border staff at Gatwick Airport as part of a national operation to try to tackle the problem of young women becoming victims of female genital mutilation (FGM).

Officers from Sussex Police were at the airport this week in a link-up with border staff to raise awareness amongst passengers returning to the UK about FGM and the law.

An intelligence-led operation focused on a flight that originated in Sierra Leone, where FGM is often carried out.

It involved officers meeting passengers as they disembarked from the plane at 7.30am and speaking with them about the issue.

A Sussex Police spokesman said: “A multi-agency approach was taken which involves UK Border Agency, NHS staff and Sussex Police because intelligence suggests that children considered most at risk of FGM are taken back to their country of origin at the start of school holidays, allowing their wounds to heal before they return home to the UK.”

FGM is illegal in the UK and under the FGM Act 2003 it is also illegal for girls who have permanent residency in the UK to be taken overseas to have FGM anywhere in the world. Those who are involved or facilitate the process are guilty of offences that carry a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.

The spokesman said officers spoke with six families with young girls on the flight, but were satisfied that none of the children had been taken abroad for FGM.

They also gave out information about the issue to the families and to other passengers to increase awareness both of the practice and of the Force's commitment to tackling those involved.

Detective Inspector Andy Richardson said: "This operation aimed to gather intelligence on this subject and, in the process, finding girls who have recently undergone FGM who could be in need of medical attention, is something our officers are focused on doing. “We are determined to ensure that offenders are prosecuted and brought to justice.”

Det Insp Richardson said: "It is extremely difficult to detect and investigate FGM because it is a taboo subject that families and communities involved in the practice keep to themselves. “There is intelligence that girls in the UK have been the victims of FGM, but we need help from members of the community to prevent it remaining a hidden crime.

"Most children who become the victim of FGM have no idea of what is going to happen to them when they are taken out of the UK."

Detective Inspector Jacqui Jenkins said: "This operation is part of wider work being undertaken by Sussex Police to support those that have been affected by this brutal crime and to hold to account those responsible for perpetuating it.

"This is a hidden problem that affects thousands of children and young women in the UK, and there are no legitimate cultural or religious reasons for FGM.”

She added: "This is completely unacceptable and something that we all have a responsibility to try to prevent. “Our collective ignorance may cost a child her life and I urge anyone that suspects a child to be in danger of either having or having had FGM, to report their concerns to police."

Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne said: "I fully support any proactive work that Sussex Police and partners are doing to help prevent more victims of this very harmful and illegal practice.

"There is no cultural, medical or other reason that can ever justify a practice that causes so much pain and suffering and in my opinion is tantamount to child abuse.”

She continued: "FGM is a hugely complex area and a recent Home Office report stated that in the UK, more than 20,000 girls are at a risk each year, and around 66,000 have already undergone the practice.

"As PCC, I will continue to oversee work with Sussex Police and partners, including the local authorities, to develop a strategy to tackle Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG), and FGM is a prominent strand within this.

"We all need to be more proactive in finding and helping the victims of this abuse that has been a criminal offence in the UK since 1985.”

She concluded: "In the meantime, I would urge anyone who has been a victim of FGM, or has any information about its practice here in Sussex, to please contact Sussex Police as a matter of urgency."

People who fear they, or someone they know, is in immediate risk of harm, should call 999. Adults who have been a victim of FGM should call Sussex Police on 101. The Force has specialist adult and child protection teams able to help.

Alternatively, there are charitable organisations able to provide advice and support for victims of FGM. The NSPCC can be contacted on 0800 0283550 or via email at: fgmhelp@nspcc.org.uk The charity Daughters of Eve can be contacted by text on 07983 030488 or via its website at: www.dofeve.org