UK
25/08/2012 04:07 BST

Child Abduction: Why British Law Means Parents May Be Powerless To Get Their Children Back

When Alison Shalaby's seven-year-old daughter was taken to Egypt by her ex-husband, she found it hard to believe that after just one week in the country, her child was now legally considered "an Egyptian".

She told The Huffington Post UK, "Whoever I contacted in the country said she was not British. That I was asking them to extradite one of their own. She's seven-and-a-half, she's been in the country a week, but they said she was Egyptian."

Shalaby's situation is all too common. Last week, British 13-year-old Adam Jones was in the headlines, apparently held in Qatar by his late father's family.

adam jones

Adam Jones and his mother Rebecca, who says he has been held in Qatar since 2009

His mother Rebecca Jones said she had been trying to bring him home since 2009 and has been lobbying the Foreign Office to reunite her with her son.

Adam wrote a letter to David Cameron, saying: "I think nobody cares about me. I beg you not to forget about me. Please let me go home to my family."

He was apparently taken in 2009 when Ms Jones signed some documents in Arabic she was presented with by her late husband's family. A Qatar court has denied her custody twice.

And this week, Leila Sabra organised a protest in Westminster to raise awareness of the case of her five year-old daughter A'ishah, who is in Egypt after her dad allegedly failed to return her after a routine custody visit in 2009.

She alleges that she won custody through the Egyptian courts, and had her daughter returned, but that she then went missing again on a second visit to her Dad in Egypt.

In the UK it is estimated more than 140,000 children go missing every year, one every three minutes, a statistic calculated by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre, which includes teenage runaways, parental abductions and kidnappings.

child abduction

Estelle Clayton, who went missing for six weeks after she was taken abroad by her father, back home with her mother, Aneta, is one of thousands who go missing each year

Shalaby, the director of charity REUNITE, managed to get her daughter back when her former partner eventually moved back to Britain, but left her daughter in Egypt. She then started court proceedings.

She told The Huffington Post UK: "He didn't really want to be in Egypt himself. I had to get a court order to get him to bring my daughter home, and he went to prison because he refused, he was in contempt of court.

"Often when a parent runs abroad, it's a knee-jerk reaction, about going back 'home', and thinking it will be completely fine to just bring your child along, without thinking of their needs or the terrible upset it can cause to the child's other parent.

"You think you can't live without your child close to you, but that's exactly what you are doing to the child's other parent."

The legal system in the UK means that if a child goes to a country, like Qatar, which is not signed up to the Hague Convention, or does not have a bi-lateral agreement with the UK regarding children, then it can be extremely difficult and costly to get a child back, with the British government powerless to help apart from through political lobbying.

Shalaby said: "There is a misconception that the government can do something about it. But they have no power to dictate to a foreign country, to tell them to adopt the Hague Convention.

"The change has to come from grassroots campaigners in that country."

SEE ALSO

Adam Jones, 13, 'Kidnapped In Qatar' And Desperate To Come Home, Says Mother Rebecca

The UK's Missing Children Conundrum (BLOG)

Children in a Legal Vacuum: International Child Abduction (BLOG)

Solicitor Louise Halford, a partner in Family Law at Pannone LLP, who specialises in child abduction cases, told The Huffington Post UK: "All you can do in those circumstances is get a declaration of habitual residence from the High Court. But the other country can just ignore it.

"All you can do then is a lot of publicity, and political lobbying.

"I have had a case where a family from India literally came and kidnapped a child in the middle of the night, because of how he was being raised in this country.

"When there's a custody dispute here, we take religion and culture of the two parties into account, but it is not an overriding factor. But in other countries, it's one of the most important things in deciding custody."

child abduction

Parents taking their children abroad often do not appreciate how it will affect their child emotionally

Shalaby said most cases do not end up in court: "Many parents return voluntarily from their country, if they realise that actually that culture is not where they want to be.

"I would advise people to constantly keep channels of communication open with the other parent, to encourage mediation.

The party that suffers the most is almost always the child, she said. "Most parents don't realise the harm done to the child, they have to start a new life, maybe in a language they don't speak, torn away from one parent, they've been lied to. They have no control.

"And emotionally, that child will not cope. They will grow up knowing ties can be broken."

Heather Al-Yousef, Christian and Muslim co-ordinator of the Interfaith Marriage Network, said that parents from different religions often had not properly thought through issues that might occur if they separate.

She told The Huffington Post UK: "In any split, the two parties feel polarised, and when the culture is different, that exacerbates that feeling of polarisation.

"We urge people to settle these kinds of questions earlier, what kind of religious upbringing do you want, where do you want your child to be brought up.

"All this can be talked about and agreed before you have children.

"Don't just think 'we're not that religious so we don't need to discuss it', because if the marriage goes wrong, it will be an issue. Forewarned is forearmed."

She said many Western men or women did not appreciate the kind of legal situations that can arise in different countries, where the religion informs the law.

"In Islamic countries, it's mostly the father who gets custody, but there would always be arrangements to see the mother. That applies even if both parents are Muslims.

"The extended family also may have a different idea of what cultural and religious life is like in Britain, they have to be shown a more nuanced view, that a child can have a fulfilling Muslim, or Jewish or Hindu life in the UK.

"Obviously, if your child has been abducted, it's not really your job to be considering and appreciating the cultural nuances of the other side.

"But what you can do is reach out to the organisations and charities in that country that focus on women and families, ask for their help."

CASE STUDY

Safraz Khan believes his daughter Aamina Ruqayyah-Khan was taken to Lahore, Pakistan, with her mother in August 2011.

He said authorities there and in the UK have not taken his quest to find her as seriously, because he is a man.

He said: "I had custody of my daughter since she was small, I fed her with a bottle, clothed her, read her stories. Now it feels like a bereavement, I haven't seen my daughter in a year, and I'm mourning for her.

"I miss my daughter so much and I love her so much. There were warning signs, I remember her saying that 'Mummy thinks I should live with her' and once saying 'Daddy, I don't want to live in Africa'.

"And I knew instinctively things were not right. But I didn't mention it to anyone, I had custody, so I thought i wouldn't make anymore fuss.

"Being a man is such an achilles heel. I have been to Pakistan three times looking for her, and everyone thinks 'what are you worrying about? the child is with her mother.' It is very hard to be taken seriously. My daughter is not from Pakistan, and neither is my ex-wife.

"She was born in Kenya and studied in Pakistan. My daughter is British, I am British, born here. There's no reason I can see why she should be in Pakistan."