EU justice ministers agreed this week on the need to co-operate more closely in the hunt for missing children. DW-WORLD spoke to a child protection pressure group about how the situation can be improved.
The McCanns have been spearheading the campaign for EU-wide alerts
The disappearance of British girl Madeleine McCann in Portugal last year hit the headlines across Europe -- thanks in large part to a huge publicity campaign launched by her parents. The authorities' did not break news of their daughter's disappearance quickly enough, according to the McCanns. They are critical that it took 12 hours for border officials in neighboring Spain to be told about Madeleine's abduction.
The McCanns have been calling for an EU-wide system of abduction alerts. But the measure was rejected at this week's meeting in Cannes after a number of countries, including Germany, argued a centralized system would produce too many alerts and prove counterproductive.
Instead, EU ministers agreed to establish efficient and compatible national systems. We spoke to Delphine Moralis, Deputy Secretary General, Missing Children Europe, The European Federation for Missing and Sexually Exploited Children, about the need for better cross-border co-ordination in Europe to prevent abduction cases.
DW-WORLD: How do you view the decisions taken by EU justice ministers this week?
Delphine Moralis: I think the messages that we've heard this week have been quite mixed. However, we do believe some progress has been made. But we need more than words. At Missing Children Europe we consider it of utmost importance that within the Schengen area where there are no real borders any more when a children is missing in one country, especially in a region that is close to the border, there is no reason why if there is a child alert across the border in one country that the child alert system in the other country could not be activated.
Passport-free travel has made cross-border measures more necessary
Imagine if a child were abducted in Kehl in Germany. France has a child alert system in place. It would be absurd, according to us, not to go beyond the border and use the existing child alert system in France, as we know that the child abducted by a third party could be in Strasbourg in half an hour. What we would like to see in the long run is child alert systems being developed in every EU state, but as a first step is indeed to improve the co-operation and make sure that these systems with a clear added value over existing information systems between police authorities to be connected with one another.
There seems to be quite a patchwork situation across the EU at the moment. Could you give us an overview?
There are fully developed child alert systems in Greece and France. These are national systems. These can be activated in cases that are considered to be very worrying. In France, it has to be a case of an abuction by a third party. There has to be certain information about the child and the perpetrator, and there has to be the knowledge that by launching the child alert the police believe they would be able to find the child more easily.
In Greece the criteria are also very strict. It allows the child alert system to be used in very specific cases. We do not want this system to be used for every disappearance. The problem, however, is that although these systems are very efficient, these systems cannot go beyond the national border.
We clearly need countries that have child alert systems in place to define criteria and procedures to cope with a situation where a child may be abducted in one country, but is likely to be in another. In the long run, the ideal situation would be to have similar systems in different EU countries. The current priority is for co-operation to occur between countries whose systems could be interlinked.
How do the existing child alert systems work?
They use all the different means of communication. Greece and France have national systems. There is a system that works at a local level in the UK. And there are slight differences between them. You would hear about the disappearance of a child in the way we would normally hear about a traffic jam,. There would be details on the electronic billboards that are over the highway, the media would be notified etc. A large amount of information would be sent out to the public in a short period of time in very specific cases that would allow the public to be very vigilant and look for the child and alert the authorities if the child is seen.
Germany was one of the countries that criticized a centralized EU-wide child alert system because it said that it would ultimately prove counter-productive. Would you favour a centralized system?
We're not calling for a centralized system. And we're not calling for a child alert to be launched in Latvia if a child is missing in the South of Spain. We're calling for systems to be able to cross the border and be effective.
Many countries do not have a hotline number set up for reporting missing children
This week, the European Commission also criticized member states' failure to set up missing children hotlines. Is this also an issue that concerns you?
The situation today is that the number has been assigned to an organization in seven member states but is operational in only two -- in Hungary and in Greece. There again an extra effort is definitely needed for the number to be put in place and to be effective because it has the potential to save a life. At Missing Children Europe we think there should be a link between the child alert system and the European telephone number, which is operated at national level. But they are two different things.
The European telephone number is a starting point. A child goes missing. It is reported to a number which is the same number in every country of the EU. From there on action can be taken. On the other hand, the child alert system aims at alerting the public when a very high level case occurs when a child is abducted, when the child's life may be at risk.
What is the scale of the problem of child abductions in the European Union?
Missing children is not an issue that has not been dealt with sufficiently in the EU for us to provide you with clear statistics. We have large numbers of missing children. But the problem is that missing children encompasses different types of disappearances. Overall, we can give you some figures. For example, 140,000 are estimated to be reported missing every year to police in the UK, of which obviously only a very small minority would be the object of a child alert.
In France, the system has been operational now for almost two years and it has been used six times. Unfortunately, we do not have any figures for Germany. The issue is not the object of clear data gathering at this stage.