Government agencies are vowing to work together to deal with the "emerging issue'' of forced marriage in New Zealand.

But a spokesman for the Refugee Council says he has seen no evidence of the problem and is wary of public hysteria.

Police, Child, Youth and Family and the ministries of social development, education and immigration have signed a letter of agreement outlining their coordinated response to victims of the practice.

"While we don't have hard data on the number of cases in New Zealand, we do know that forced and underage marriage is happening here,'' said police national family violence manager Inspector Brigitte Nimmo.


"We also know that victims rarely come forward for many reasons. Often they are very young, and it can be difficult for cultural and family reasons. It is timely to ensure we have a recognised, effective and safe pathway for victims of forced marriage.''

Forced marriage is defined in the letter as one where "a marriage is conducted without the valid consent of both parties where duress is a factor. Duress may include physical, psychological, financial, sexual and emotional pressure. Duress may occur prior to, during the arrangement of a forced marriage and continue once it has taken place.''

It is not illegal and a police spokeswoman said it was unknown whether cases numbered ten, 100 or 1000.

Ms Nimmo said those who spoke to police could face serious harm or death and officers could be used unwittingly to assist in forced marriages.

"For example a young person will run away from home knowing that [marriage] is imminent and then the family will report them missing as a runaway ... and we go along and end up assisting in taking them back, which of course is a horrific situation for them to be in.''

Most victims were aged between 14 and 16, and often spoke about the issue with friends at school.

"As an issue, it's very, very deeply underground. When the young women find themselves in the situation ... they face this terrible conundrum of `I don't want this to happen to me, but I don't want to bring shame on my family, I don't want to never see my family again, I don't want to loose my community'.''

Refugee Council of New Zealand spokesman Gary Poole said the practice was most common among northern African cultures.

The letter of agreement was a positive step, but he was worried it would whip up hysteria around an issue he had not see any evidence of here.

There was no hesitation to talk about the issue of forced marriage within the communities he worked with.

"I personally would not accept it and would want very strong action taken through the communities.''

The letter can be viewed online here.