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Could Europe alerts stop abductions?

By Paul Kirby
EU reporter, BBC News

Kate and Gerry McCann travelling to Brussels
The McCanns also want a hotline and a European children's centre

Gerry and Kate McCann have travelled to Brussels to make the case for an EU-wide alert system for missing children.

Since the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine almost a year ago, the couple travelled across the continent, appealing for help in finding their daughter.

Could an immediate pan-European response have made a difference?

So far, France and Greece are the only EU countries to have introduced full alert systems along the lines of the American Amber scheme which involves immediate broadcasts on radio and television about missing children and information about possible suspects.

Within 30 minutes of a confirmed case of abduction, French authorities can flash up information on a missing child on motorway signs and ads are put out before national news broadcasts.

Britain, Belgium and Germany all have their own schemes but the McCanns want a far more co-ordinated response plan across Europe.

'Dulling effect'

But not everyone is convinced it would work.

German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries has argued that it would be impractical and may prove counter-productive.

If Madeleine has been abducted by a predator, there would have been a huge chance of her being spotted. All the exit ports would have been alerted immediately
Lady Catherine Meyer
PACT

In her view, publishing media ads in the north of Denmark, say, for a child kidnapped in southern Italy would be of little use to any police investigation.

And showing the faces of missing children on a daily basis on television might result in a "dulling effect" on the public.

It may sound an extreme example but it reflects a sentiment that extending alerts across Europe might be an over-reaction which would probably involve extensive bureaucracy.

Parental abductions

The reality is that the kidnapping of a child is rare, and most missing children have either run away or they are either taken from their homes by a parent in a separated couple.

According to the charity Reunite, more than 400 children are taken illegally either into or out of UK every year.

Lady Catherine Meyer set up Parents and Abducted Children Together (PACT) after her two young children failed to return from a trip to their father in Germany in 1994, despite a court order.

The McCann proposals
EU-wide missing child alert system
European children centre combining NGOs, governments and police
Missing child hotline

She is with the McCanns in Brussels and believes an alert system would have made all the difference in their case.

"If Madeleine has been abducted by a predator, there would have been a huge chance of her being spotted. All the exit ports would have been alerted immediately".

Portuguese police had no such mechanism in place and are accused of reacting slowly to her disappearance.

116000 hotline

As well as the child alert system, Gerry and Kate McCann would like MEPs to sign up to a Europe-wide missing child hotline and a European children's centre which would co-ordinate the efforts of governments, the police and voluntary groups.

But is the EU the right body to address the issue?

A hotline has already been launched by the European Commission with the aim of giving a single number - 116000 - for parents to report missing children, wherever they are in Europe.

The aim is to extend the hotline to 47 countries, but it has had a slow start.

Gerry McCann appealing for help in Amsterdam in June 2007
The McCanns travelled across Europe to raise the profile of the search

Only five of the EU's 27 member states - Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Hungary and Portugal - have so far adopted it, although the European Commission says more are in the pipeline.

British Labour MEP Arlene McCarthy is backing the McCann's campaign and believes the EU should consider making the hotline mandatory across Europe.

Missing Children Europe brings together charities across the continent and is also backing the hotline number.

But, like Germany and Austria, it is not so keen on extending the French alert system across the whole of Europe. Far better, it says, for national alerts to communicate with each other when necessary.

The organisation raises the recent case of a child who disappeared in France close to the Belgian border. While a search began immediately in France, nobody was looking 10 minutes drive away in Belgium.

Police co-operation

There is also scepticism that police forces could or would want to work together in large numbers. Sceptics point to the difficulty in bringing together 53 separate forces in the UK.

An ambitious plan for a Europe-wide register for child sex offenders was being mooted. The trouble is not all police forces have a national register to contribute to an international database.

And while the broadcast alerts bring the public into the search for a missing child, there are also questions over what happens to the information from that appeal when it is handed to the police.

Once you've got the alerts... you've got ensure that pedalling furiously underneath are police forces who are talking to each other
Baroness Sarah Ludford
British MEP

At times, since the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, Leicestershire police have had a difficult relationship with their Portuguese counterparts.

Portuguese police plan to hold a reconstruction on the anniversary of the night she disappeared, which British police had called for within weeks of it happening.

British Liberal Democrat MEP Baroness Sarah Ludford is in favour of an EU-wide alert system but says police forces are often reluctant to share the information they have.

"I have no idea whether Madeleine McCann could have been found (after an alert), but it seems to me there is a problem of breaking down barriers in sharing information between police forces across the EU," she says.

"Once you've got the alerts, you've got to make sure something happens to them: you've got ensure that pedalling furiously underneath are police forces who are talking to each other and leaving no stone unturned."

For Lady Meyer, the EU could play a vital role in improving the police response to child abduction by organising training programmes. And she thinks a new approach could save lives.

"How would you feel if it was your child who had been abducted by a predator? If we can save one child through a system like that, then it would be worth it."

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McCanns travel to Brussels to support child alerts call



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