Each year there are around 50 cases in Switzerland of children abducted by a parent who then disappears abroad.
The justice ministry says that in the majority of cases it is the mother who is responsible for the kidnapping.
Figures from the ministry’s Central Authority for Dealing with International Child Abduction show that there were 49 cases of parental kidnapping in 2004.
Many of the cases involved children caught in a tug-of-love wrangle between separated parents, usually of different nationalities. And 57 per cent of the time it was the mother who carried out the abduction.
"When a marriage is in crisis, it is often the mother who decides to return to her country of origin because she is afraid to start divorce proceedings in a foreign country," the authority’s Nicolette Rusca-Clerc told swissinfo.
The Bern-based institution was set up after Switzerland ratified in 1994 the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which requires snatched children to be returned home.
It not only ensures the application of the convention, which has been signed by 72 countries, but also liaises with its international counterparts and offers mediation services for affected families.
High profile cases
The desperation felt by mothers in foreign child custody battles has been highlighted by two recent high-profile cases of kidnapping in Switzerland.
In the first, nine-year-old Melissa Wood and her seven-year-old brother Jamie were abducted from Australia by their Swiss mother in 2001.
The children were returned to the father’s hometown in Australia in the middle of January and are currently being cared for by foster parents, while the case is resolved. Their mother, Maya Wood, is afraid to return to Australia, as she would face a jail sentence for kidnapping.
But one of the most well known cases is that of five-year-old Ruben Bianchi, who was taken from Italy back to Switzerland by his Swiss mother, former cycling champion Lucille Hunkeler, in 2002.
In summer 2004 she disappeared with Ruben and is currently being searched for by police. The case hit the headlines last September after the child’s father, Italian doctor Stefano Bianchi, who has custody of Ruben, went on hunger strike outside the Swiss embassy in Rome in protest.
Such was the uproar that Justice Minister Christoph Blocher even discussed the case with his Italian counterpart Roberto Castelli during their last meeting.
Blocher promised that he would do everything in his power to return Ruben to his father.
The minister has also announced that he has formed a commission of experts to assess how children’s rights can be better protected under the Hague Convention. A report is due in November this year.
But cases of kidnapping to Switzerland are still far less common than those of a parent taking a child out of the country, says the child abduction authority.
In 2004 there were 37 cases of children being abducted out of Switzerland, but only 12 where children were brought into the country.
The most frequent destinations for fleeing parents are Spain, France and Germany. Switzerland, on the other hand, received the most requests for help from the authorities in Italy, Portugal and Germany.
In all, the total number of abductions per year has remained stable over the past few years, says the central authority. But its head, David Urwyler, has said that custody battles have become fiercer and less open to compromise.
In most of the 2004 cases, the central authority used the Hague Convention to try and resolve the situation. However, it warns that there is little it can do when children are taken to non-member states, such as Russia and many Middle Eastern and African countries.
Apart from abduction, the authority also deals with international violations of visiting rights between separated parents. There were 15 such cases in 2004.
"Stopping the former partner from seeing their own children is also a type of kidnapping," said Rusca-Clerc.
In both abduction and access cases, the authority tries first of all to find an amicable solution between the two parties.
If this doesn’t work, lawyers are brought in and the affected parent receives support from the local authorities.
"Cutting the child in half, as in the Judgement of Solomon in the Bible, is not possible," says Rusca-Clerc.
swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson
2004 figures from the child abduction authority:
64 cases – 49 of abduction and 15 of violation of visiting rights.
37 cases of abduction out of Switzerland; 12 of abduction to Switzerland.
57% of abductions carried out by mothers.
Most cases concerned children under the age of seven.
The 1980 Hague Convention is aimed at securing the prompt return of children wrongfully removed to or detained in any contracting state.
It ensures that rights of custody and access under the law of one contracting state are respected in the other contracting states.
It has 72 signatories which include most European and North and South American countries, Australia and a few African countries.