Traumatic: The mother of four sisters involved in an international custody dispute is comforted by a friend (left) at Brisbane International Airport as her girls are escorted onto a plane. Picture: Eddie Norbido Source: Supplied
THE four sisters who were taken through Brisbane International Airport by AFP officers trying to put them on a flight to Italy received help from the Commonwealth in getting to Australia in the first place.
The two eldest girls left Brisbane for Italy last night, hours after their younger sisters were sent home.
The two younger girls arrived in Rome about 5.45am today after their plane was delayed (More details below).
The Courier-Mail can reveal that their journey to Australia in June 2010 with their mother was planned, co-ordinated and partly financed by the Commonwealth, the culmination of three years of consistent consular support.
The Family Court of Australia ruled the move was an abduction after their father brought proceedings under the Hague Convention for their return later in 2010. But their departure from Italy marked the end of a three-year taxpayer-funded “consular emergency” triggered by the mother’s claims in 2007 that her husband was abusive and had cut off financial support.
Diplomatic cables show officials from the Rome Embassy advised Canberra it was in the children’s best interests for them to take a one-way trip to Australia.
Two months before their trip, consular official Paul Given, explaining the “rationale” of the plan, wrote to Canberra:
“Post contacted a/n (Australian national) who confirmed that her husband … has provided written consent to the issue of Australian passports.
“One-way travel documents would be sufficient to meet the children’s welfare needs, it being in their best interests to return to Australia where their mother might have greater job prospects and the means to support them.”
Local consular officials even helped the mother and her children evade the father during their “RTA”, official jargon for “return to Australia”.
They secretly rescheduled the mother’s flight to an earlier one “to avoid any possible confrontations with her ex-husband”, the documents show.
“Consul (Hobbs) met with a/n at her hotel this morning to give her the four passports, etickets for the flights and return the original birth certificates,” said a cable sent to Canberra on June 24, 2010, the day of their departure.
“At our request, Emirates agreed to transfer a/n and family to the earlier 15:25 flight as there were available seats without any extra cost.
“We accompanied a/n and family to the airport to ensure everything went smoothly and waited until they had successfully gone through security screening and passport control.”
The Australian Government loaned the mother a few hundred dollars to cover expenses during their journey from Florence to Rome, making her sign undertakings to repay the money, the documents show.
The cables show the Rome embassy first planned the group’s passage to Australia in April 2009, obtaining quotes for the cost of international flights and train travel within Italy.
Diplomats reported to Canberra the following month that the mother’s Italian social worker had found she was showing signs of depression and weight loss.
A diplomat messaged Canberra that the worker had noticed “a decline in a/n’s general wellbeing”.
The mother “appears to have lost weight, is neglecting her physical appearance and seems to be showing signs of depression”, the worker was reported as saying.
Other messages detailed claims that the mother was a suicide risk and that the father had said he would kill himself if the children were removed.
“A/n indicated it was unlikely that her husband would provide consent for passports to be issued to the children,” Consul Jenny Hobbs told Canberra in April 2009.
“A/n has spoken to her husband about her desire to take the children back to Australia and said that her husband had responded at that time, that if the children were removed from Italy he would commit suicide.”
The cables describe how the girls’ mother and grandmother threatened that year to go to the media in Australia, prompting a “priority” message from Canberra for diplomats to deal with the problem.
In one document sent to Canberra on May 27, 2010, and headed “Consular in Confidence”, diplomat Jenny Hobbs wrote: “We collected the completed passport applications and have confirmed the father’s consent.
“AN (Australian national) appears confident her mother will raise the funds for the flights home and has already started making arrangements in preparation for leaving.
“As requested we have provided a breakdown of the costs required for AN and the family to return to Australia.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade yesterday confirmed it had provided consular assistance between 2007 and 2010 to “an Australian woman and her children, all of whom resided in Italy”.
“The embassy facilitated arrangements for their travel to Australia in 2010,” a spokesman said. “Passports were issued to the children with the consent of the father.
“Embassy officials advised the mother that a permanent relocation to Australia by the children could only be achieved with the informed consent of the father.
“The Family Court judge who delivered his findings in Brisbane on March 9, 2012, stated that ‘I have found nothing that supports a finding that any Australian Government official somehow knowingly assisted the mother to do something that was wrong’.”
The two younger girls spent the final sector of their flight back to Italy today huggled together under a blanket, sitting beside their female minder.
Courier-Mail reporter Kate Kyriacou, who was on the aircraft, reports that the children travelled in economy in a row of three seats with their minder on the aisle.
They interacted with her, even giggling at times.
During the Singapore-Dubai leg of the marathon flight, the girls were subdued and talked with minders, watched movies and played games on the in-flight entertainment system.
On the first stopover in Singapore, they were removed from the plane before other passengers and in a second in Dubai were left on board while to wait for others to depart.
They were not taken to public lounge areas at departure gates.
It is understood the pilot of the first plane scheduled to take all four sisters home refused to accept the two older girls because of their behaviour.