Jane Bradley: Crossing border with children can be problematic

Travelling with a child is stressful enough at the best of times. But fearing that you could be stopped at passport control and quizzed over your right to take your own offspring out of the country '“ and in a worst case scenario, prevented from continuing on your journey '“ makes it a whole lot more stressful.
Crossing the border is not child's play.Crossing the border is not child's play.
Crossing the border is not child's play.

An increasing number of reports have circulated of mothers (and fathers) who do not share a surname with their son or daughter being stopped not only abroad, but by UK passport control.

Anecdotally, I have heard of parents who now feel the need to carry a copy of a child’s birth certificate, their marriage certificate, or even a permission letter from their partner or ex-partner if they are travelling with their child alone.

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Earlier this week, MP Tulip Siddiq revealed that she had been stopped and questioned about her right to travel with her daughter on a Eurostar journey from France this summer, until her husband joined them and they were allowed to continue.

She is now petitioning the Home Office to change children’s passports so that both parents’ names can be listed, saying she is being “penalised” for keeping her maiden name.

“Things are changing and the law needs to catch up,” she said. “I want to find a way to change this. I don’t know why I should be penalised for not changing my name. I got married aged 30, I lived my life, I had a reputation under my maiden name.”

Siddiq became separated from her husband, Chris Percy, when the family were queuing for passport control, after she was granted permission to take their 18-month-old child through a fast track queue with her buggy.

She handed over the passports to an official who asked her, “Who is this girl?”.

Siddiq says she felt particularly vulnerable because her daughter looks more like her husband than like her, which she believes sparked concerns.

“It wasn’t exactly hostile but there was a real air of suspicion, I was made to feel like I had done something wrong,” she said. “And they said I could leave my child with them when I went to look for my husband.”

It is incredible how so many people – passport officials and the general public – still seem to find it outlandish that mothers do not have the same name as their child. According to a recent survey by YouGov, one in seven women – still a surprisingly low number, in my opinion – say they do not plan to take their husband’s name when married.

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Why would they? The typical age for a first marriage is later than it once was – occurring at a time when women have spent years building up a career and a life under one name.

As Siddiq said, mothers who do not share a name with their child should not be punished for having made that decision.

The Home Office argues that policies are in place to “safeguard children and to prevent people trafficking, child sexual exploitation and other crimes committed against children”. It has also suggested that parents enter both of their names in the “emergency contacts” section on their child’s passport. However, this comes with no guarantee.

All very laudable aims, but surely something can be done to prevent mothers – and some fathers – from feeling like criminals while on an otherwise enjoyable holiday.

What is perhaps most confusing is that the policy does not seem to be applied consistently. Some parents are stopped, some are not. There appears to be no rhyme or reason for the decision.

One woman who took her children on holiday with a friend and her daughter – but without her husband – worried for weeks beforehand, ensuring she had a copy of their birth certificates, marriage certificates and even a letter stating that he was happy for them to be taken out of the country. However, her concerns were unfounded. Like Siddiq, she was particularly concerned as her dark haired, half Turkish offspring do not resemble her own blonde-haired, blue-eyed appearance.

“She took every piece of documentation she could and they never even batted an eyelid or asked her,” her travel companion recalls.

A friend who lives in Dubai says that questions at passport control are common even for parents and children who do share the same surname – but are travelling without the whole family.

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“They are advised to carry birth certificates and ‘No Objection’ letters from the children’s fathers,” she explains. “Often nothing happens but it has been known.”

Another friend was stopped at both UK and US immigration when travelling to visit relatives in America with her then-four-year-old son. Officials quizzed the boy on who the woman travelling with him was – and his birth date.

“All completely fine with me, but I didn’t have his birth certificate and he refused to answer most questions and gave the wrong date for his birthday, but we were still let through,” my friend recalls. “So it makes you wonder why they bothered asking, in a sense.”

One friend whose brother’s children have their mother’s surname – and hold German passports whilst his is British – says he is always stopped when travelling with them and carries all the necessary documentation. However, when the children’s grandmother, who also does not share a surname with the youngsters, travels alone with them, she is never stopped.

“I think a fair amount of profiling goes on,” says my friend.

Of course, while Siddiq’s solution of parental names being listed in a passport would solve the issue for parents travelling alone with their children, it would not eliminate the problem entirely, as children may travel abroad with people who are not their parents for a variety of reasons.

I have relatives who regularly take their grandchild on holiday while his parents work – while increasingly, older children may opt to take a friend with them on a foreign holiday, meaning the child is not travelling with either of their own parents.

However, in that situation, a rarity for most people, it does not seem like such an imposition to have to carry extra documentation, but parents, who should be able to travel with their children as a matter of course, should not have to jump through hoops.

A formal entry on the passport would solve the problem.