More than 40 kids abducted from Finland last year

Some experts say Finnish courts should pay more attention to child abduction concerns in custody hearings.

Most western countries are party to the Hague convention on International Child Abduction. Image: Silja Viitala / Yle

Forty-one children were abducted internationally from Finland last year. Experts in this area say most abduction cases involve custody disputes.

Jasmin*, told Yle she is convinced that if Finnish authorities had listened to her concerns, her ten-year-old daughter **Dania'**s abduction would have been prevented.

The morning after Christmas break, Dania* did not show up for school. Her father, Mahmood* had abducted her, and her mother had no idea where she was.

Jasmin said she had become worried a few days earlier because her daughter had stopped calling. Dania was in Sweden with her father after a Finnish court had recently allowed him to leave the country with her.

When Jasmin realised her ex-husband's Finnish phone wouldn't receive text messages, she called the police and child protection services. Both agencies said nothing could be done because the father was still within his visitation rights.

Long custody battle

Tarja Räisänen, the executive director of the Finnish Association for Abducted Children, said she has helped solve hundreds of cross-border abduction cases during her career.

"The cases are all ones that you don't forget," she said.

Taking an under 16-year-old child abroad without the other parent's consent or failing to return from a trip meets the criteria for international child abduction, a crime which carries a two-year jail penalty in Finland.

Jasmin had resisted Mahmood's petitions to take their child abroad last winter. She told Yle she had long feared he would abduct the child to Iraq, their former home country.

During their marriage Jasmin claims that Mahmood was abusive and had threatened to take their daughter. After a domestic incident, Jasmin fled to a women's shelter with Dania.

When Dania was two years old, a Finnish court awarded Jasmin full custody. Mahmood was granted supervised visits. The parents continued to battle over custody as Dania grew, with Mahmood demanding full custody.

Over the years, courts granted Mahmood, now married to a Finnish woman, more visitation rights.

Jasmin was still against the arrangement, saying she had received clues that Mahmood was planning to leave the country with Dania. The hospital where Dania was born notified her that Mahmood was seeking Dania's birth certificate. The Iraqi Embassy had also requested Jasmin provide them with her own birth certificate because "her husband needed it" for registration purposes in Iraq.

Court ignored abduction concern

Jasmin showed the courts a text message Mahmood had sent her saying that children belong to their father when they turn nine.

In a court hearing, outside experts told the court that Mahmood's behaviour filled all of the criteria for potential child abduction.

"I felt like the courts only cared about moving through the proceedings as quickly as possible, preferably before lunch. We were also not given a second hearing day, even though interpretation was slowing things down," she said.

The court confirmed Jasmin's sole custody, but its decision expanded Mahmood's rights to see Dania on weekends and holidays. The court also granted him the right to access the child's passport for travel.

Saara Malinen is an attorney specialised in child abductions. She said abduction concerns rarely cause Finnish courts to limit a parents' visitation rights.

"It's peculiar that these concerns by the other parent are not weighed in decisions," she said.

In Dania's case the court never clarified why it did not consider Jasmin's concerns about Mahmood abducting their daughter.

"The court had all of the material indicating that an abduction was likely to occur if the opposing party's demands were met," Jasmin's lawyer, Kirsi Tarvainen, said.

Jasmin's fears came true this past Christmas holiday. Despite the court order, Jasmin said she had refused to give Mahmood Dania's passport. He only had her ID card.

Dania called her mother from Doha Airport in Qatar. Mahmood was taking her to Iraq.

Jasmin later found out that the Iraqi Embassy in Helsinki had granted Mahmood a temporary passport for Dania. This travel document had made it possible for him to take her beyond the Schengen area in the middle of the pandemic.

Once in Baghdad, Dania was sometimes able to call her mom, though Jasmin said she was never able to determine her daughter's exact location.

Jasmin said Mahmood at one point called her to demand she send him Dania's passport and a large sum of money.

In May, Jasmin's work with police, courts, and various ministry officials paid off. MP Hussein al-Taee (SDP) also intervened in the case.

Jasmin said she was under the impression that Iraqi authorities had started investigating the case. When Mahmood refused to meet with officials in Iraq, they issued a warrant for his arrest. At this point he decided to return to Finland, according to Jasmin.

Information obtained by Yle revealed that Finnish Foreign Ministry officials also put pressure on the case.

Five months later

In May Jasmin saw Dania for the first time in nearly five months. After landing in Finland, police apprehended Mahmood.

"Dania had lost a lot of weight and her clothes were dirty," Jasmin said.

Children sometimes become pawns parents use to emotionally blackmail each other, according to Räisänen. She also said parents may believe they "own" a child. In other cases, parents may abduct children because they live in fear of abuse from the other parent, or believe they can receive a more favourable custody decision from a court outside of Finland.

Most western countries are party to the Hague convention on International Child Abduction.

Räisänen, however, said it was still important for parents to keep communication channels open as official cooperation was not always smooth, especially if countries involved have not signed the convention.

A new law came into force this year aiming to make it more difficult for a parent to single-handedly leave the Schengen area with their child.

It is now possible to add a child's name to a Schengen alert register. This system means border guards can prevent abductors from reaching their destination.

Räisänen said her organisation lobbied 13 years for the new law.

Jasmin said she has written to court officials involved in her case. She said she wanted them to know what happened after they granted Mahmood permission to travel with Dania.

In return, she said she only received generic messages from the court saying, "your message will not result in further action by the Court of Appeals."

"It feels terrible that they did not believe me," she said.

Räisänen pointed out that restricting parents' right to travel with children effectively prevents international abductions. "It's less traumatising for the child not to travel, than actually getting abducted."

Yle examined Finnish and Iraqi official and police documents for this story.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the involved parties, particularly that of the child.