Aamina Khan’s bedroom is much like any seven-year-old’s. Her wardrobe is filled with clothes, her school uniform is laid out on her bed and her toys sit in a pile in the corner. The only thing that is missing is Aamina. Her father, Safraz, 44, who was awarded custody of her in 2008, has not seen his daughter since September 2011, when her mother fled the country with her.
“It’s the worst thing ever. Aamina was this happy, bubbly, talkative, active, little girl and our bond was so close. Now I just go home to an empty house day after day, not knowing where she is, or if she’s even safe,” says her father, a senior research scientist, who lives in South Croydon.
The number of children abducted and taken abroad by a parent has risen by 88% in just under a decade, according to new government figures. About 270 new cases were reported in 2003-4, while last year there were more than 500 new reported cases. But perhaps most surprising of all is that 70% of these abductors are mothers.
“This has certainly not always been the case, but it’s definitely changing,” says Joanne Orton, advice line co-ordinator for the charity Reunite. “We often see cases where the mother is a foreign national who has come to England, developed a relationship that then falls apart and she wants to go home to the comfort of her family. As Britain becomes increasingly multi-cultural, we can only see this trend increasing, and it can take months, and even years, of going through the courts for the father to see their child again, and even then, they may never succeed. It’s a major problem.”
Safraz met Aamina’s mother Humma, whose family originates from Pakistan, when they had an arranged marriage in 2004. “After we married, she spent more and more time with her own family, who lived about 10 miles away. When she became pregnant, I was overjoyed. I thought it would be our fresh start.”
But when Aamina was born in July 2005, Humma, who is a doctor, took a job 80 miles away. “Her mother went with her to look after Aamina while she worked, and I was invited to bring Aamina home at weekends. It was hard, but at least I saw her, and I became a very interactive father.”
But soon afterwards, Safraz spotted an email on the family computer, showing that Humma had applied for a job in Bermuda. “I was heartbroken and called the employer to say that I’d seek advice from a solicitor if Humma took our daughter.” The company withdrew the job offer, but Humma was angry and things went downhill. “She increasingly lived at her parents, while Aamina mostly stayed with me.”
In 2008, they separated and Safraz was given residency, while Humma got contact rights. But when, in September 2011, Safraz went to collect Aamina from a two-week stay with her mother, no one answered the door.
“The car wasn’t there and I felt sick. I called on Humma’s uncle nearby and he said they’d gone on holiday. I reported her missing to the police, and they discovered she had been taken to Abu Dhabi, then to Lahore. The penny then dropped about Humma’s recent visits to Pakistan. She had been setting up a new life for her and Aamina.”
Since then, Safraz has written more than 1,000 letters and attended countless court hearings in both England and Pakistan. “I’ve got my MEP on board and I’ve been to some horrible places in Pakistan, handing out photos and writing to schools. But still nothing. The police can’t find Aamina. It’s not that I want Aamina taken away from her mother – just that England is her home. She likes rainbows, her school and swimming lessons and she’ll be confused in a country she doesn’t know and where she must surely believe she can never trust anyone again if the main person in her life suddenly disappears from it.”
The emotional effect of parental abduction on children can be devastating, says Orton. “The child loses trust in the people they should be able to trust the most, and from speaking to parents following a return, it seems that trust is lost not just in the abducting parent, but both parents. That can affect them for life – their self-esteem, their confidence and their expectations of others, causing them all sorts of problems further down the line.”
Unfortunately for fathers such as Safraz, locating children is particularly difficult in countries that are not signatories to the Hague convention, says Orton. “With countries that have signed up – the majority of which are in Europe, as well as Australia, Canada, America and some others – there are procedures in place that can speed things up, although it’s not always smooth even then. But with countries that aren’t signatories, such as Pakistan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, children can very easily disappear.”
Another major problem facing fathers is that many feel at a disadvantage within the court system.
Gary Mulgrew, 51, whose 11-year-old daughter was abducted six years ago by her mother and taken to Tunisia (also not a signatory to the Hague convention), says: “The courts are an utter nightmare for fathers. They seem to be predisposed to making things more difficult for them.”
Gary was one of the three millionaire British bankers, known as the NatWest Three or the Enron Three, who were accused of fraud against their former employer NatWest. They ended up in a US jail after losing a high-profile extradition case. Until the case started, Gary lived in Brighton with Laura, his wife of 12 years, their son Calum and daughter Cara Katrina. “But then we started appearing in the newspapers a lot. The stress would put most marriages under strain and especially ones like ours, which wasn’t strong.”
Calum, then eight, chose to live with Gary and while Cara Katrina, who was three, officially lived with her mother, she stayed with Gary most of the time.
“Laura had met this Tunisian guy Abdul, whom she married three months after I was extradited, so she spent most of her time with him. But I started to get worried about her taking the children away with him. She was American and hated living in the UK, only ever having done so because of me, so I took out a prohibitive steps order, which was supposed to prevent her taking the children out of the country without my permission, and I agreed to a large divorce settlement if she agreed to stay in the UK.”
Then Gary found himself in Houston for four years – curfewed, tagged and eventually imprisoned. “Calum was with my family in the UK. I knew he was safe. But Cara Katrina just disappeared along with Laura. I was in this appalling situation where I was in another country, absolutely helpless and the police in Britain, when I phoned them, just ignored me. The minute you say you’re extradited, they think you’re a criminal and you can hear the change of tone of their voice when you say the abductor is the mother. They think: ‘Oh well, that’s not too bad then.'”
Calum travelled regularly to Houston to see his dad, but Gary felt at a loss when he tried to explain why his mother and sister had vanished. “Laura was always a good mother and even when we divorced she had stated that I was a good father, so it was difficult to understand her rationale. Calum had a few letters from his mother via his school, but there was never a return address.”
Even when Gary’s prison sentence came to an end, he found himself on probation in the UK, unable to travel to look for Cara Katrina. Finally, in April 2010, he got the go-ahead and boarded the first available flight to Tunisia.
“I’ve been back eight or nine times since, trying to find her, but I don’t know where to start and the authorities are useless, here and there. They say that unless I’m prepared to prosecute Laura, they won’t help, but I don’t want that. Who would that help? I’m not even saying that if I found Cara Katrina, I’d bring her home. I have to think about what’s best for her and after six years, I might have to accept that the right thing is for her to stay there. But, as it is, I don’t know if she’s safe, if she’s happy, if she’s educated. I don’t even know if she’s with her mother.”
Calum is now 17. “You can imagine what this has done to him. But we make the most of what we’ve got and have a strong relationship. We don’t talk about it much, but I always buy an extra ticket at the cinema and I encourage people to keep buying Cara Katrina birthday and Christmas presents, which I keep for her, so she knows we’re not giving up on her.”
Last year, Gary got some professional counselling. “Someone said I needed to treat it as a bereavement – not of Cara Katrina, but of the five-year-old Cara Katrina. But the thing about your children is that your love for them is intense, so this doesn’t ever get any easier. In my positive moments, I dream of her being treated well and that Abdul has this big family where she laughs and sings and goes dancing. But the nightmare moments are where I let myself think none of those things might be true and that she’s just waiting for me and I haven’t come.”
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