Expat life: what if you don’t want to return?

Feeling trapped?

Most British expat parents living in Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, or other countries with steamily hot summers will spend a month or more away to visit family and escape the heat. As the summer holidays come to an end, many expat families are now travelling with children back to the place they now call home. For many, this journey home brings a feeling of relief, to be returning to the routine of day to day life after a whirlwind tour of friends and relatives. For others, the start of a new school term and another year of expat life may bring a sense of foreboding.

Each year, many hundreds of expat parents on the brink of divorce or separation choose not to return.

What is child abduction?

Contrary to belief, a parent can abduct a child. Parental child abduction is the removal or wrongful retention of a child without the agreement of the other parent. When a couple move abroad with their children and settle as expatriates in another country, a child will soon become habitually resident in that country. If one parent decides to retain the children in another country without the agreement of the other parent, this can constitute child abduction, even if that other country was where the parent or child were born.

Getting help

The left behind parent may have recourse to the English courts to try and ensure the return of such abducted children to their place of habitual residence. The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, or Hague Abduction Convention is a multilateral treaty developed by the Hague Conference on Private International Law (HCCH) that provides an expeditious method to return a child internationally abducted by a parent from one member country to another. Dubai and several other Middle Eastern countries are not signatory to the Hague Convention above, but there is still legal recourse that can be taken through the English courts to try and ensure the return of abducted children from England to non-Hague convention countries.


(names changed for confidentiality)

Suzie and Joe are British, but live in Dubai with their 2 children aged 4 and 6. They had been living in Dubai for 5 years and were happy there until their marriage began to deteriorate. Suzie was thinking about moving back to England with the children but was uncertain as she worried that Joe would try and stop her. Suzie and the children went back to England in July as usual, to stay with family and friends for a few months; they were due to return in early September in time for the next school term. Whilst back in England, Suzie felt increasingly worried about returning to her broken marriage and the uncertainty of resolving the family issues through the local courts. She decided to stay in England with the children and enrol them in local schools, after all, they were all British and this was their home, wasn’t it?

Joe sought legal advice and found out that Suzie could not relocate the children to England without his agreement or order of the court. He commenced Wardship proceedings in England and sought the return of the children to Dubai. With the help of mediation, Suzie and Joe were able to discuss what was best for the children and reach an agreement that met both their concerns. Joe agreed that if Suzie returned to Dubai with the children, he would pay for a separate home and maintenance for them so they could live independently. They reached an agreement that the children would live with Suzie but would stay with Joe two nights a week. Lawyers for Suzie and Joe worked to put in place orders and safeguards that legally prevented both of them from reneging on the agreement they reached.

If you are an expatriate seeking to relocate with your children to another country, or are fearful that your spouse may try to do so without your knowledge or agreement, seek advice from one of our specialist lawyers as to the safeguards that can be put in place, either to prevent abduction, or to protect your rights in the event of marriage breakdown abroad.

Helpful advice can also be found from the website for the child abduction charity, Reunite.