Why Travelling Can Be So Distressing For Families With Different Surnames

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell
There are many reasons why you might have a different surname from the rest of your family – maybe you decided not to take your partner’s name, or you didn’t want to get married; you might be a same-sex parent or you could be divorced. The list could go on…
However, under the Home Office’s official advice, if you’re a family travelling abroad with different surnames from your children, you should be ready with documents to prove your relationship with your child. Specific examples on their website include a birth or adoption certificate, divorce or marriage certificates, or a letter from the child’s other parent giving permission for the child to travel with you.
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As the playgrounds get busier, and the ice cream lines get longer, more and more families are heading to the airports for their summer holiday – and a recent tweet from the Home Office has left Twitter frazzled.
Many users have reacted to the policy as ‘archaic’, and not fit for purpose in 2018.
Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, added: "So if my daughter travels with her dad, there’s no problem. If she travels with me, I have to have additional paperwork and an explanation of why I haven’t removed my own name & replaced it with his? Victorian border control. Anti-women, discriminatory nonsense from @sajidjavid."
Packing for your family is stressful at the best of times; no matter how many times you check, there will always be that niggle that you’ve forgotten something. That feeling was all too real for Stacey Flynn as she prepared for her first trip abroad with her son, since his father’s passing. One thing that she definitely didn’t think to bring, alongside suncream and plug adapters, was the death certificate of her late partner.
Three years ago, Stacey’s partner Liam tragically died at the age of 28 in a motorcycle accident. As the couple were unmarried, like many children, their 4-year-old son has his dad’s surname. After an exhausting day of travelling, Stacey and her son were next in line at Luton’s passport control. Already distracted and thinking ahead to going home to an empty fridge and back to reality, Stacey was even more taken aback by the robust questioning of her 4-year-old.
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Her son was questioned in front of her about who she was, and where they'd been, just because they didn’t share a surname. She replays how confused and disorientating it was for her toddler, who had just lost his dad. He had been raised not to talk to strangers, but then was being questioned about who his mum was at a busy, chaotic airport.
The shock came first, then the realisation that she would have to tell a stranger that the father of her child is dead every time they travel. Her son’s childhood was already tainted by the loss of a parent, and now every time they escaped on holiday they would have to 'prove it'.
Stacey added: "The worst part of every holiday abroad, since my son’s dad passed away, is packing the death certificate... most people get excited packing to go away but it’s one of the parts I dread because I know I have to carry that document around for a week."
Holidays shouldn't be traumatic, but Stacey describes the overwhelming anxiety that is heightened by the weight of carrying around a reminder of Liam’s death. Since he passed away Stacey has been struggling with anxiety attacks, and has been given medication to help, but she says that despite this airports are still very triggering. "I get nervous about being stopped in case I'm questioned on my situation and I feel sorry for my son being questioned," she added.
When Dr Pragya Agarwal travels, she has to carry her daughter’s birth certificate and proof that she has sole custody. Her daughter has a different surname from her, and Pragya has a different surname from her husband, causing confusion for customs and border control. "When we travelled together I was stopped at immigration a few times. Being a PoC didn't help. I found it very distressing and my daughter found it more stressful and distressing every time we were questioned and stopped."
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Pragya recalls one time in particular where she saw her daughter’s tiny face crumple up with fear, asking why they were stopped and no one else was. "So terrible for a little child to feel like that, to feel different to others, and to feel embarrassed. But I tried to talk to her about it honestly. She was asked where her father was, and she hadn’t really lived with him and didn’t know him well but to be reminded of that again was so traumatic. It was like we had to be defined by a man."
Furthermore, when she travelled with her white partner, who is her daughter's stepdad (with a different surname), they were never stopped. Pragya wants to see the government have policies that represent families that come in all shapes, sizes and surnames.
Some people on Twitter have been highlighting the importance of these measures to protect children from trafficking and kidnapping. In what looks like a response to the outcry, the Home Office has replied to its tweet with a video explaining the reasoning behind the policy.
"We have a duty to safeguard children and to prevent people trafficking, child sexual exploitation and other crimes committed against children. That is why Border Force staff need to be content that the adult travelling with the child has parental responsibility or parental authority has been given to travel with the child. We aim to do this quickly and with as minimal disruption to passengers as possible."
To this Jill Rose asks: "I would still like to know how a letter from his father, that I could have forged, would have made him any safer or removed from the risk of trafficking?"
"Could family passports be considered until the child is 18? Or legal guardian/parent names on the child’s passport? If another adult wishes to take the child anywhere, the legal guardians would give formal permission beforehand, and documents could be issued."
Many of the parents sharing their experiences of proving their relationship with their children think it’s time for the Home Office to update its advice to reflect and respect the diverse families in the UK. Maybe the current outcry will change things.
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