But a recent report published by the European Commission appears to want to tackle this issue and in a press release this week, the Commission has suggested the possibility of implementing a worldwide strategy to help prevent child trafficking: micro-chipping all children’s passports with their custody or contact arrangements. Clearly, this measure is designed to include what is sometimes referred to as ‘tug-of-love’ cases, where a divorcing parent may seek to take their child abroad to avoid further contact with the other parent. But will this measure in reality really protect our children or will it cause more uncertainty and in the worst possible instance, greater loss of life?
In the US, for 2010, some statistics suggest that children (younger than 18) were reported missing in a one-year period, and that of those children some children were the victims of family abductions. In the UK, a child ‘disappears’ every three minutes and around 17% of abductions are carried out by the child’s parent. That amounts to a suspected 600 cases a year in the UK, where an estranged parent abducts their child.
The very term abduction conjures up something frightening and unexpected, and can sometimes sit at odds with the so-termed ‘tug-of-love’ cases, where the abductor can be a parent trying to escape a violent partner, because the family justice system has not been able to protect that child. In effect, it is not an abduction, but an intervention. This of course is not the only reason children find themselves being taken abroad by one parent without the consent of the other. Sometimes, intractable conflict between the parents acts as a catalyst for one parent to leave the country with the children. And it is this kind of behavior that the European Commission is in part, trying to guard against.
The advantages of having a child’s custody arrangements on their passports are potentially rewarding: being able to spot and detect children being taken before they leave the country, having the opportunity to detain the parent and child and so avoiding the often long and sometimes fruitless search when trying to locate them once they have left the jurisdiction (it is notoriously hard to locate children who have, for example, been taken to countries which do not have reciprocal arrangements with that child’s country of residence for dealing with abductions), and perhaps most importantly ensuring that if a child is suffering from the experience, that the experience of abduction can itself be stemmed fairly quickly, with fewer ramifications.
The disadvantages though, are plenty, and cries from human rights corners of the legal system have been echoing since the report by the Commission was released. Dubbed the Big Brother Chip by civil liberties groups, the idea that a passport should house such intimate details has caused something of a stir and may result in thousands of parents taking their children on holiday being viewed as potential child abductors. Anyone who has traveled alone with a child will know that this attitude is becoming more and more prevalent – with some border guards even refusing to speak to mothers and asking children as young as seven where they are going and whom they are going to see, all of which can be very daunting for a small child, and can sometimes result in the child not being able to answer. The potential for misunderstanding could, conceivably, cause Big Brother style problems. These days, parents traveling with children, who have different surnames to their children, are advised to bring a letter of authorization or evidence such as birth certificates for verification, though not required to do so. Yet.
And what of the fleeing family, who have been failed by the justice system and who are seeking to avoid domestic violence? The answer cannot really lie in muting potentially helpful measures to avoid wrongful child abductions, but must lie in how the justice system responds and subsequently deals with issues like domestic violence in the first instance. Chipped passports or no, the parent fleeing to protect their child must be protected long before they decide upon more drastic measures.
It remains to be seen whether chipped passports will be implemented and whether if they are, they will be effective. There is a fine balance between protecting our children and raising them in a world of fear and suspicion.