After an emotional reunion between a six-year-old girl and her mother three years after she was kidnapped, the politician who helped reunite them urges a shake-up in the way abduction is dealt with.
Atiya Anjum-Wilkinson was flown back to England last night after she was tracked down in Pakistan, three years after she vanished on her third birthday after going to stay with her father, Razwan Ali Anjum.
A former insurance salesman, he said he was taking the little girl to Southport, but instead, took her to Lahore, in Pakistan. He told her mother, Gemma Wilkinson, that she was “never going to see Atiya again”. He insisted that he had her mother’s permission to take her on holiday to Pakistan, but said that he did not know what happened to her after he returned home without her on 20 November, 2009.
Last night, Ms Wilkinson said she was “overwhelmed” when she saw her daughter again. Breaking down in tears at Manchester Airport, where the pair were reunited, she said: “I am just absolutely overwhelmed at seeing Atiya now and giving her a cuddle and a massive kiss.
“We have gone from not knowing where Atiya is to finding out that we do know where Atiya is, to receiving pictures of Atiya and how she looks now, to Atiya coming here and Atiya actually being here. It’s just been an absolute whirlwind.”
Ms Wilkinson said she did have a “few fears” that Atiya would be unsettled with the change and the flight but added: “She is absolutely fine. She is trying to communicate and she is playing with the things that we have bought for her. She’s settled. She has a big smile, she’s happy, she’s talking.
“She will find things strange but she’s home where she’s loved and we’ll just to take it day by day with the support we can get for Atiya.”
However, although Sajjad Karim, an MEP who helped them with their search after learning about the situation around a month ago, said he was pleased with the outcome, he said there was a need to think outside strict legal structures when dealing with similar cases in the future.
He told BBC News: “Personally, on the one hand I’m absolutely delighted. On the other hand there’s frustration because honestly there’s nothing I have done over the last four to five weeks that I couldn’t have done three years ago.
“There is a fundamental need to review the protocols that we have in place in situations of this sort.
“We need to be thinking outside of strictly legal structures, we need to explore all the avenues available to us right at the outset to make sure this sort of situation doesn’t happen again.”
Although Britain’s foreign office said that they had raised the case with authorities in Pakistan a number of times, it was only when Mr Karim got involved, raising the matter directly with Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s foreign minister, that it began to develop.
She vowed to help, and authorities stepped up their search, checking medical and school records before narrowing her location down to north-east Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province.
Mr Karim said that after the news of the little girl’s disappearance spread in Sialkot, a garrison town in the north of Punjab which has strong links with Britain’s expatriate Pakistani community, members of the public tipped off police.
The politician said they managed to find Atiya on Christmas Eve and got hold of up-to-date pictures of her which they were able to show to her mother in the UK on Christmas Day.
He said that no money changed hands in getting her back.
Mr Karim also revealed that Atiya does not speak any English, but knows Urdu and Punjabi. He described her as a “bright button” after talking to her.
Anjum, from Rochdale, was arrested on November 24, 2009. He refused to talk during court hearings and was handed a fourth consecutive jail term in April. He had had an “on off” relationship with Ms Wilkinson until 2008.
At one point, police led fruitless searches in Iran after he was said to have told them that was where she was.
Detective Superintendent Phil Owen, from Greater Manchester Police’s Child Protection Unit, said the investigation had “been long and hard”.
He added: “Throughout the three years of her disappearance, her mother Gemma has understandably been sick with worry. She had not heard from her beloved daughter and did not know whether she would ever set eyes upon her again.
“However, Gemma, alongside ourselves and a variety of organisations, were determined we would not give up and remained dedicated to finding her. Thanks to this determination and the help from the Pakistani authorities, we have the outcome we were hoping for.”