International travel with children post-Covid

By Will Story for the Family Advocate, Summer 2022

Travel came back on the cards in 2022, with a phased border reopening starting with Australia in late February. The full re-opening of New Zealand’s border at 11.59pm on 31 July 2022 signalled the end of a two year long, unprecedented domestic lockdown. While a proportion of New Zealanders quite content to keep sheltered in the “hermit kingdom” remained, it was mostly a case of the opening of the flood gates on 1 August 2022. Not so long ago on the brink of career collapse, travel agents enjoyed a rapid resurrection and struggled to keep up with the pent-up demand for overseas escapes.

The re-opening of borders reunited families. But for the first time in over two years, it also presented an opportunity for disputes around travel involving children to resurface. The toll of lockdowns on relationships was well publicised during Covid’s main waves. But consider the additional tensions on relationships involving migrants or multi-national families where couples are divided by homeland. We know from Hague Convention precedent that the strong pull home can and has led to unilateral decision making. While unilateral travel is at the expense of one parent’s rights, and often detrimental to that parent’s relationship with their children, there are limited options available to parents when it comes to enforcement.

And further complicating enforcement, in the case of multi-national families (at least prior to the Covid pandemic) international travel arrangements are often made and take place by consent between all parties involved. However, boundaries which parties thought were well-drawn often become blurred when a two week stays turn into a month, and a month turns into three months.

One could easily assume that mediation would never work in these scenarios. After all, surely any sign of good faith is decimated the moment one parents refuses to return the child/ren, and/or return with the child/ren.

But consider the (only viable) alternative, an alternative that is only available between contracting countries and that is an application under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction for return of the child/ren. For the average New Zealander, the legal field of “international child abduction” would sound very off-putting, not to mention heavy-handed. No matter how wronged you felt as a parent, or how much you miss your child/ren, taking legal action which would essentially label the other parent an “abductor” is drastic. Especially when you are told by a lawyer that Interpol will be on alert and intercepting your children at the border. No matter how strongly you felt about the unilateral travel, I am sure that having your children go through that experience would be something keenly avoided by loving parents.

Whilst undoubtedly quick and often effective, parents should be urged to contemplate whether this is really in their children’s best interests. In addition to the above factors, it may not accord with what the child/ren actually want. And if it doesn’t, it is highly likely to lead to child/ren harbouring resentment towards the enforcing parent and even more conflict.

Mediation could be considered both before or after travel has taken place. Before travel is preferable as it allows both guardians to reach an agreement together and to reality test that agreement, ideally preventing any disputes from transpiring. Conversations can be front footed around communication during travel and unforeseen delays or changes to plans. This can help both guardians to understand what the impacts of their actions might be.

One of our Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) mediators recently had a case where a father wished to take the children overseas to his homeland for six months, and the mother agreed in principle. They came to mediation to assist with drawing up a comprehensive agreement. The father thought it was important that he had sole responsibility for the children during this time, so he could make decisions as needed while away. The mother was happy for the children to spend time away with their wider family but had concerns around what might happen if the timeframe extended and whether “sole-guardianship” might impact her future parental rights. During the mediation process, the mediator urged both parents to seek legal advice so they could understand the potential legal consequences of their decision making. The parents then came back together for some earnest discussions around what could happen and what the impacts would be. They were then able to reach an informed agreement and plan for their family.

Another case which came to FDR involved a mother who took her child overseas and did not return the child as planned. The mother contacted the father to inform him that she would not be sending their daughter home to New Zealand on a flight that evening, as initially agreed. The mother felt that care arrangements needed to be agreed before she felt comfortable to do so. She invited the father to participate in FDR. The father had been pursuing options to have the child returned to his care, including approaching police and exploring his rights under the Hague Convention. He was hesitant to instigate this process if it could be avoided, understanding the impacts that a forced intervention would have on his daughter, so he agreed to participate in mediation and work on reaching a parenting plan together. The parties were able to discuss their respective worries openly and honestly, and constructively work together with the assistance of one of our skilled mediators to successfully reach a child-focused, durable agreement.

Parenting is not an easy undertaking at the best of times, and this is especially the case for separated families. Add to this the friction caused by the pandemic and isolation from family overseas while our borders were effectively closed. Many parents are considering a trip back “home” soon and may be contemplating extended trips to compensate for the increased cost of flights or length of time since they last traveled home. We are already seeing these issues present in mediation and mediation is undoubtedly the right place for these conversations, saving international child abduction litigation for the rare cases that require it.

About the author

Will Story BA LLB ( is an experienced family lawyer (not practising) and Operations Manager of Family Services at Fair Way Resolution Limited.