Over the holiday, the airwaves were dominated for a day by a good news story. A six-year-old girl, Atiya Anjum-Wilkinson, was returned to her British mother after being taken illegally to Pakistan by her father three years before. The mother dissolved into joyous tears on camera and talked of massive kisses and cuddles. The happy outcome headed not just “tabloid” TV, but the BBC News at Ten.
And this did indeed seem to be a case where the rights and the wrongs were clear, unlike that of the Scottish 12-year-old, Molly Campbell, who chose to live with her father in Pakistan and recently returned to the UK. It was unusual, too, in the readiness of the courts to act. Atiya’s father, it turned out, was serving his fourth term in a British prison for refusing to divulge the child’s whereabouts.
In all the publicity given to this case, though, one question was not asked, let alone answered: how was Razwan Anjum able to take a three-year-old from Britain to Lahore unhindered? And there is another: why were UK lawyers commenting on this case so resigned to the likelihood that such cross-border abductions will continue to rise, as they have done by 88 per cent in the past 10 years?
Now it may be that Atiya was the victim of some complex stratagem involving other relatives or transit countries. But, as the law stands, British airport security officials – in the regrettable absence of formal exit checks – are entitled to ask an adult taking a child out of the country for proof that he or she has the permission of the other parent, and in the case of grandparents or unrelated adults, the permission of the parents. In theory, notarised letters are required, as they are in many other countries.
The difference between Britain and, say Italy – where my sister used to have to produce a notarised document to bring her young sons to the UK – is that almost no one seems ever to be challenged, let alone asked for a piece of paper. And while it may be that there are deemed to be just too many child travellers to make checks feasible, it also suggests a lack of official curiosity that approaches irresponsibility.
Remember Liam Corcoran, the 11-year-old who flew from Manchester to Rome without passport, ticket or boarding pass by attaching himself to other families? Supposedly, that prompted a tightening of procedures. But similar laxness seems to apply to children entering the country unaccompanied or with adults who are not their parents. Remember Victoria Climbié, beaten to death by the relative who was supposed to send her to school? Remember the children we hear of from time to time abandoned at the airport, only to be “claimed” by someone else? DNA testing is judged too intrusive. Why?
The sad truth is that the UK does not use even the safeguards it has to prevent the abduction and trafficking of children. And the reason, I would hazard, is not that we regard children as “special”, but that we do not value them enough.