On Monday, the legislature in England passed a law forced marriage in England came with those found guilty of the largely hidden practice now facing up to seven years in prison.

The legislation not only applies within England and Wales but also makes it a criminal offence to force a British national into a marriage abroad, as many youngsters are flown out to weddings in countries where they have roots, particularly Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

Nearly two-thirds of the cases dealt with by the government’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) relate to Britain’s South Asian communities.

Campaigners welcomed the new laws as a “huge step forward”, while the government hopes they will help protect potential victims.

Affecting thousands of British-born youths, forced marriage has been increasingly exposed in the last decade.

“Forced marriage is a tragedy for each and every victim, and its very nature means that many cases go unreported,” said Home Secretary Theresa May.

“I am proud to say that the UK is already a world leader in the fight to stamp out this harmful practice.

“Today’s criminalisation is a further move by this government to ensure victims are protected by the law and that they have the confidence, safety and the freedom to choose.”

Last year, the FMU dealt with 1,302 cases — 18 per cent of them men — but charities receive far more calls and officials fear the number of victims coming forward is just the tip of the iceberg.

Forty per cent of victims were aged 17 or under; three quarters were aged under 22.

The cases related to 74 different countries, although 43 per cent were linked to Pakistan, 11 per cent to India and 10 percent to Bangladesh.

Other countries with multiple cases included Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran and Tunisia.

The new laws are contained in the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.

They will be introduced in Scotland at a later date, while Northern Ireland will be able to bring in its own legislation.

A forced marriage is defined as one in which “one or both spouses do not consent to the marriage but are coerced into it (by) physical, psychological, financial, sexual or emotional pressure”.

Forcing someone to marry can now result in a sentence of up to seven years in prison.

Previously, courts have been able to issue Forced Marriage Protection Orders only to prevent cases or assist victims.

Disobeying an order can now result in a jail sentence of up to five years.

Marriages without consent, or their refusal, have led to suicides and so-called honour killings in Britain, with several cases coming to national prominence.

In the coming months, Prime Minister David Cameron is to host Britain’s first summit dedicated to galvanising action against forced marriage.

Charities say few leaders with influence in their communities are prepared to take a stand on the issue for fear of losing their support base.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said children as young as 12 had contacted them about forced marriage, with the number of calls rising by two-thirds in the last year.

The charity’s Ash Chand called the new law “a huge step forward which we hope will deter those plotting against their own children.

“Many young people who call our ChildLine service about this issue are frightened, concerned and feel control of their lives is being wrenched from them.”