12/08/2011 19:44 BST | Updated 12/10/2011 06:12 BST

Hague and the Heartbreak of the Holidays

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has published new figures on the scale of the problem of children being abducted by their parents and taken overseas. They reveal that, every other day, a British child is abducted by a parent to a country which has not signed the 1980 Hague Convention on international parental child abduction.

While the number of cases reported has risen by 10 per cent year-on-year, even UK ministers admit that the actual incidence of the problem is likely to be far higher, as many such abductions never make it as far as the courts, politicians or law enforcement.

It is a sadly depressing scenario for myself and my colleagues, having handled lots of cases of this nature in recent years. Even though relatively few instances are considered worthy of coverage by the media, the distress felt by parents and children is all too frequent.

Of course, the problem of abduction by parents is not something which Britain is alone in having to contend with. In a statement marking National Missing Children's Day in late May, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, described it as a "painful scourge" and vowed to maintain the pressure on other governments to sign up to the Hague Convention.

The statistics released by her British counterparts demonstrate how widespread and global the issue had become. Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne disclosed that, in the last 12 months, the authorities in London had handled cases featuring 97 different countries which had yet to become Hague signatories, ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

However, it's not only so-called 'undeveloped' countries which present a problem for parents hoping to secure their children's return. France is among those nations which featured in a report published by the State Department in April for failing to enforce an order compelling the return of a child under the terms of the Hague Convention. Similar orders were made in the cases of 115 children taken from the UK to US and vice versa during 2009 alone.

Japan, meanwhile, is the only one of the G-7 group of leading industrialised countries not to have yet signed up to Hague, even though it has indicated that it may be about to do so following persistent pressure from the US and UK governments.

The Hague Convention may not be perfect but it offers a framework for the return of children to the countries from which they were abducted. Even though there are limited defences against an order to repatriate an abducted child, the provisions of Hague can take some time to effect. However, the parents and children involved often find that better than the seemingly interminable search for answers in countries which haven't signed up to the Convention.

Apart from the heartbreak, there is one other constant associated with cases of parental child abduction. Many tend to occur during school holidays, when it might not be unusual for separated or divorced parents to take children overseas. In the experience of many clients with whom I've worked, that makes Summer a time for trepidation and tension, anxiously waiting for children to return home safely from such trips.

Prevention, of course, is easier than resolution. However, even in those relationships which have witnessed difficulties and in which there might be suspicions of abduction, it is not that easy to absolutely prevent. Parents can be placed on so-called 'watch lists' to stop them taking children to non-Hague countries. To do so, though, requires evidence of an imminent abduction risk. Such proof is not necessarily always that easy to come by.

Such cases arise because other elements of a relationship between former spouses or partners has broken down - quite often because of simple misunderstandings - and individuals wrongly decide to use children in order to apply added pressure. Such a step is completely wrong but illustrates how mediation and simple, clear advice could potentially take the heat out of situations which can lead to lives being changed and families torn apart.

The frequency of parental child abduction reflects something else too. People arguably move more freely between countries than they ever have before, increasing the possibility of their having relationships with people of different nationalities and from different cultures.

That pattern is unlikely to change, so I and my colleagues around the globe who spend our days trying to unpick such delicate and complex cases are likely to continuing to do so for some time to come.