Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative
Sea Travel Closed-Loop Voyages
We are also very concerned that the documentary requirements for a “closed loop” cruise ship or other water vessel’s voyage or itinerary to contiguous countries or adjacent islands allows travelers to be exempt from the documentary requirements necessary for other types of travel. The CBP defines “closed loop” as occurring when “a vessel departs from a U.S. port or place and returns to the same U.S. port upon completion of the voyage. U.S. citizens who board a cruise ship at a port within the United States, travel only within the Western Hemisphere, and return to the same U.S. port on the same ship may present a government issued photo identification, along with proof of citizenship (an original or copy of his or her birth certificate, a Consular report of Birth Abroad, or a Certificate of Naturalization). A U.S. citizen under the age of 16 will be able to present either an original or a copy of his or her birth certificate, a Consular Report of Birth Abroad issued by DOS, or a Certificate of Naturalization issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.”
Travel requirements for children traveling at sea are quite alarming. The porous documentation controls in place due to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative facilitate child abduction opportunity at sea in unthinkable ways. For example, there are certain cruise ships that have ports of call in other countries that cater specifically to children. These cruise ships hold over 5,000 passengers and typically have weekly departures. With thousands of children boarding one of these cruise ships, we acknowledge it is clear there is substantial opportunity for a parental or non-parental child abduction to occur.
In a likely scenario for cruise ship related international parental child abduction or child trafficking, an individual could presumably board a cruise ship with a targeted child with limited or fraudulent documentation for the child, travel to WHTI designated foreign ports, disembark with the child at a port of call and simply choose not to re-board the ship, effectively circumventing the necessity of a passport which is required for other types of travel.
When representatives in the security departments of both cruise ship companies were asked what could be done with a court order prohibiting a child's departure, each spokesperson suggested that if the targeted parent knew what cruise ship and departure date their child was scheduled to travel on, then it would be up to the parent to contact local law enforcement.
Obviously, the ability for a single parent trying to protect their child's abduction to run from cruise ship port to cruise ship port hoping to determine if their child is traveling on one of the ships is more than daunting and unrealistic, particularly since the vast majority of international child abductions are well planned, and cleverly orchestrated.
In a time of increased international security concerns, it is inconceivable that the only type of data bases most cruise ship operators have in place is a data base that flags previous passengers from traveling on their fleet due to past conduct on board one of their ships.
When we consider there are approximately 760 cruises scheduled to depart from the U.S. and travel in a ‘closed loop’ to the Caribbean during fiscal year 2011, this becomes very concerning. Our worry increases after we consider there are 47 "closed loop" cruises scheduled to depart the U.S. to Canada during the same period. And finally, our concern surges when we realize that there are 379 cruises scheduled to depart the U.S. and travel in a "closed loop" to Mexico.
As previously discussed in this report, Mexico is a hotbed for ‘reported’ and ‘unreported’ incoming and outgoing international parental child abduction cases. A substantial number of U.S. parents have filed a Hague application due to the criminal international abduction of their child or children. Unfortunately, very few abducted children return to the U.S. despite court orders demanding the child’s return. These opinions are substantially backed by the U.S. Department of State, as Mexico has repeatedly been reported to Congress as a non-compliant member of the Hague Convention. In addition, Mexico’s record as a country known for its criminal activity of human trafficking is substantial.
We express our grave concern that cruise ships may be utilized to transport children illegally to and from the U.S., Mexico, and Canada as well island nations of the Caribbean.
It is inconceivable that U.S. children are still permitted to travel to specific foreign countries in accordance with the WHTI without a passport. Today, nearly 30% of all U.S. citizens possess a passport. As that number continues to grow substantially each year it is unthinkable not to require a passport for a child to travel abroad. In 2011 cruise ships are scheduled to originate from the U.S and travel to 63 ports of call in Mexico, 48 ports in the Caribbean, and from 20 ports of call in Canada. We contend that a failure to require children to present a passport for all international travel is an act of misguided negligence.
Closed-Loop Foreign Destination Number of Cruises Number of Ports
Caribbean 760 63
Canada 43 20
Mexico 379 48
The CBP does state that a U.S. Citizen “may” be required to present a U.S. passport if disembarking at a foreign port but that this requirement is up to the individual ports-of-entry. We must also consider that smaller personal watercrafts traveling to foreign ports under a “closed-loop” journey offer distinct opportunity for child abductors and human traffickers to circumvent our nation’s laws or court orders. The lack of formidable travel documentation for cruise ship or other water vessel excursions originating from and returning to the United States is a black hole for would-be child abductors or traffickers.
The fact that cruise ships are being utilized in human trafficking is not unrecognized within the U.S. or in other countries. The following statements come directly from a human rights watchdog organization in Belize.
The Belize Organization for Responsible Tourism (ORT) issues this appeal to cruise lines bringing passengers to Belize, a superhighway for human trafficking. “We are asking for your help in stopping human trafficking in Belize. In particular, we appeal to Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Lines, which bring a combined 700, 000 tourists to Belize annually.
Cruise lines have a moral responsibility to help stop human trafficking in Belize. Each year thousands of human trafficking victims are transited through Belize via its porous and corrupt borders. Many are exported to other countries and never seen again by their families. Many endure lives of forced prostitution in Belize ficha bars.”
The issues of child abduction and child slavery have received relatively limited public exposure. There has been limited government reaction directed toward changing public policy, government agency operations and protocol, and reform of laws that may facilitate or enable international abduction. It is important to recognize that over the past two years there have been over 1,000 ‘reported’ cases of U.S. child citizens being criminally abducted to Mexico and untold numbers of unreported cases. Imagine how our nation would act if:
1. 25 school buses containing 40 defenseless 5th grader American students disappeared in Mexico; or,
2. 4 Boeing 757 passenger jets containing 250 middle school children each was hijacked; or,
3. A cruise ship with 1,000 high school students on a spring break trip was pirated off of Mexico’s borders; or,
4. A train traveling with 1,000 students and their teachers was hijacked.
Undoubtedly, there would be public outcry and reform at every level. However, our public and government concern has not reached levels that it should. The many voices of this unthinkable crime tend to be diluted due to the singular reporting methodology. It is imperative that immediate revisions in law and government policy be initiated including reform of the WHTI land and sea travel requirements for minors.
One of the great challenges at-risk parents of international parental child abduction face is that the cruise ships do not presently have a centralized way of determining if a child embarking on their ship has a legal right to depart. The United States does not have any exit controls. The only way a child could be flagged is if their passport is flagged. However, if a child's travel documentation only requires presentation of a naturalization document such as a photocopy of a birth certificate, it is up to targeted parents to contact the security departments of each potential cruise ship a child may be put on and request that the cruise ship company review its reservation manifests.
The WHTI may in fact have many benefits, including ease of travel; however, there are many problems, one of which is putting our children at risk of abduction.