Thursday, September 22, 2011

International Parental Child Abduction Warning Signs: Cruise Ship Travel

How Are Children Internationally Abducted Via Cruise Ships?

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative Loopholes:

Sea Travel Closed-Loop Voyages

An excerpt taken from THE WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN written by Peter Thomas Senese & Carolyn Vlk

Under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative policy, a minor 16 years old or younger traveling by land or by sea abroad is not required to present a valid passport to travel. All that is required is a photocopy of a citizenship document, such as a photocopy of a birth certificate. This policy has created a significant loophole for would-be abductors intent to abduct or traffic a child abroad. 

We are also very concerned that the documentation requirements for a “closed loop” cruise ship or other water vessel’s voyage or itinerary to contiguous countries or adjacent islands allows travelers to be exempt from the documentary requirements necessary for other types of travel. The CBP defines “closed loop” as occurring when “a vessel departs from a U.S. port or place and returns to the same U.S. port upon completion of the voyage. U.S. citizens who board a cruise ship at a port within the United States, travel only within the Western Hemisphere, and return to the same U.S. port on the same ship may present a government issued photo identification, along with proof of citizenship (an original or copy of his or her birth certificate, a Consular report of Birth Abroad, or a Certificate of Naturalization). A U.S. citizen under the age of 16 will be able to present either an original or a copy of his or her birth certificate, a Consular Report of Birth Abroad issued by DOS, or a Certificate of Naturalization issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.”

Travel requirements for children traveling at sea are quite alarming. The porous documentation controls in place due to the WHTI facilitate child abduction opportunity at sea in unthinkable ways. For example, there are certain cruise ships that have ports of call in other countries that cater specifically to children. These cruise ships hold over 5,000 passengers and typically have weekly departures. With thousands of children boarding one of these cruise ships; we acknowledge it is clear there is substantial opportunity for a parental or non-parental child abduction to occur.

In a likely scenario for cruise ship related international parental child abduction or child trafficking, an individual could presumably board a cruise ship with a targeted child with limited or fraudulent documentation for the child, travel to WHTI designated foreign ports, disembark with the child at a port of call and simply choose not to re-board the ship, effectively circumventing the necessity of a passport which is required for other types of travel.

The potential to illegally remove a child across international borders via cruise ship travel is substantially magnified because currently there are no systematic data base controls and other security measures that would prevent a child's illegal departure from the United States. Exemplifying this grave concern are direct statements made from the security departments of two of the world's largest cruise lines operators. In statements made by both companies, neither have a security database that would enable a parent nor a court of law to place a child's name on a 'no embarkment' list due to specified court order. So even if a court order is issued that either directly names the cruise ship company as part of the action or if the court order references the cruise ship company to prohibit a child's departure but does not list the cruise ship as part of the legal action, the cruise ship companies have nothing in place that would enable them to comply with the court order.

When representatives in the security departments of both cruise ship companies were asked what could be done with a court order prohibiting a child's departure, each spokesperson suggested that if the targeted parent knew what cruise ship and departure date their child was scheduled to travel on, then it would be up to the parent to contact local law enforcement.

Obviously, the ability for a single parent trying to protect their child's abduction to run from cruise ship port to cruise ship port hoping to determine if their child is traveling on one of the ships is more than daunting and unrealistic, particularly since the vast majority of international child abductions are well planned, and cleverly orchestrated.

In a time of increased international security concerns, it is inconceivable that the only type of data bases most cruise ship operators have in place is a data base that flags previous passengers from traveling on their fleet due to past conduct on board one of their ships.

Remarkably, there is no systematic check to determine if a child’s name has been placed on any law enforcement or government travel alert lists. However, if a U.S. passport was required and the U.S. passport was scanned, then a border patrol agent would have immediate access to potentially critical information regarding the safety of the child. We call upon the cruise ships to act responsibly by establishing security procedures including a 'no-embarkment' database that would assist in the prevention of international parental child abduction and human trafficking.

When we consider there are approximately 760 cruises scheduled to depart from the U.S. and travel in a ‘closed loop’ to the Caribbean during fiscal year 2011, this becomes very concerning. Our worry increases after we consider there are 47 "closed loop" cruises scheduled to depart the U.S. to Canada during the same period. And finally, our concern surges when we realize that there are 379 cruises scheduled to depart the U.S. and travel in a "closed loop" to Mexico.

As previously discussed in this report, Mexico is a hotbed for ‘reported’ and ‘unreported’ incoming and outgoing international parental child abduction cases.  A substantial number of U.S. parents have filed a Hague application due to the criminal international abduction of their child or children.  Unfortunately, very few abducted children return to the U.S. despite court orders demanding the child’s return.  These opinions are substantially backed by the U.S. Department of State, as Mexico has repeatedly been reported to Congress as a non-compliant member of the Hague Convention. In addition, Mexico’s record as a country known for its criminal activity of human trafficking is substantial.

We express our grave concern that cruise ships may be utilized to transport children illegally to and from the U.S., Mexico, and Canada as well island nations of the Caribbean.

It is inconceivable that U.S. children are still permitted to travel to specific foreign countries in accordance with the WHTI without a passport.  Today, nearly 30% of all U.S. citizens possess a passport. As that number continues to grow substantially each year it is unthinkable not to require a passport for a child to travel abroad.  In 2011 cruise ships are scheduled to originate from the U.S and travel to 63 ports of call in Mexico, 48 ports in the Caribbean, and from 20 ports of call in Canada. We contend that a failure to require children to present a passport for all international travel is an act of misguided negligence.

Closed-Loop Foreign Destination        Number of Cruises       Number of Ports
Caribbean                                                            760                                63
Canada                                                                   43                                 20
Mexico                                                                 379                                48

The CBP does state that a U.S. Citizen “may” be required to present a U.S. passport if disembarking at a foreign port but that this requirement is up to the individual ports-of-entry. We must also consider that smaller personal watercrafts traveling to foreign ports under a “closed-loop” journey offer distinct opportunity for child abductors and human traffickers to circumvent our nation’s laws or court orders. The lack of formidable travel documentation for cruise ship or other water vessel excursions originating from and returning to the United States is a black hole for would-be child abductors or traffickers.

The fact that cruise ships are being utilized in human trafficking is not unrecognized within the U.S. or in other countries. The following statements come directly from a human rights watchdog organization in Belize.

The Belize Organization for Responsible Tourism (ORT) issues this appeal to cruise lines bringing passengers to Belize, a superhighway for human trafficking. “We are asking for your help in stopping human trafficking in Belize. In particular, we appeal to Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Lines, which bring a combined 700, 000 tourists to Belize annually.

Cruise lines have a moral responsibility to help stop human trafficking in Belize. Each year thousands of human trafficking victims are transited through Belize via its porous and corrupt borders. Many are exported to other countries and never seen again by their families. Many endure lives of forced prostitution in Belize ficha bars.”

As these serious challenges come to light, we need to create a comprehensive short-term and long-term strategy that will prevent child abduction and human trafficking from occurring due to limited WHTI child travel documentation requirements for land and sea travel. There remains a significant amount of work necessary to enhance border security so that current weaknesses will no longer be available to be exploited. Our children must become a priority and the risk of abduction and human trafficking be lessened through mandating legitimate and uniform travel documentation.

The issues of child abduction and child slavery have received relatively limited public exposure. There has been limited government reaction directed toward changing public policy, government agency operations and protocol, and reform of laws that may facilitate or enable international abduction. It is important to recognize that over the past two years there have been over 1,000 ‘reported’ cases of U.S. child citizens being criminally abducted to Mexico and untold numbers of unreported cases. Imagine how our nation would act if:

1.     25 school buses containing 40 defenseless 5th grader American students disappeared in Mexico; or,
2.     4 Boeing 757 passenger jets containing 250 middle school children each was hijacked; or,
3.     A cruise ship with 1,000 high school students on a spring break trip was pirated off of Mexico’s borders; or,
4.     A train traveling with 1,000 students and their teachers was hijacked.

Undoubtedly, there would be public outcry and reform at every level. However, our public and government concern has not reached levels that it should. The many voices of this unthinkable crime tend to be diluted due to the singular reporting methodology. It is imperative that immediate revisions in law and government policy be initiated including reform of the WHTI land and sea travel requirements for minors.