10,000 Refugee Children Missing: Historical Coincidences and Historical Symptoms

By Marita Vyrgioti

In the Greek language, the word coincidence shares the same root with the word symptom; which creates a paradox. This sharing implies that when a coincidence (σύμπτωση) is repeated, it then becomes a symptom (σύμπτωμα).

On the 30th of January, Brian Donald, Europol’s chief of staff told the Observer that: “one of the most worrying aspects of the migrant crisis […] is that thousands of vulnerable minors had vanished after registering with state authorities’. It’s not unreasonable to say that we’re looking at 10,000-plus children. Not all of them will be criminally exploited; some might have been passed on to family members. We just don’t know where they are, what they’re doing or whom they are with”.

There is an oxymoron about the above statement. One of the leading members, of one of the greatest European organizations for investigating and prosecuting criminal networks, publicly and shamelessly announces that during his service as Chief of Staff in Europol, 10.000 children are missing in Europe. 10.000 minors that we “just don’t know where they are, what they’re doing or whom they are with”. His words have no trace of guilt, personal incompetence, and professional failure. Quite the opposite, his over dramatic tone echoes an individual responsibility disclaimer, and is being projected upon us readers as our collective responsibility: “It is our fault that those children have gone missing. We are all responsible for them”.

Moreover, there is a shocking coincidence in Donald’s statement: there is an implicit association with Videla’s statement in 1979. “They are neither dead nor alive. They are missing (Desaparecidos)”. Videla, the Argentinian dictator, in a quite similar fashion, refused all responsibility for the 30.000 men, women and children “missing” during his dictatorship. Desaparecidos was the word used to describe what these people went through, which actually translates into imprisonment, torture, sexual abuse, murder and disposal of their dead bodies in mass graves. Certainly, such historical comparisons will take us no further than declaring the European Union a dictatorship. However, for the moment, let’s stick to the fact that historical coincidences (συμπτώσεις) sooner or later become historical symptoms (συμπτώματα).

Such a historical coincidence is Brian Donald’s statement (on the 30th of January 2016) with the debut of the film Spotlight in cinemas, in the UK (on the 29th of January). Spotlight, which is nominated for 6 Oscar Awards, is a film about the exposure of the scandal of repeated child abuse by 296 Catholic priests in Boston. In the film, a team of reporters from the Boston Globe newspaper reveal that the Archbishop of Boston’s Catholic Church, Bernard Francis Law, along with a small number of lawyers and newspaper editors, were aware of the incidents of child sexual abuse by priests, had evidence of paedophilia from members of the Catholic Church and did nothing. In fact, when the scandal burst, in 2001, Archbishop Law resigned from Boston and was appointed, by the Pope John Paul II, as Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, until his retirement in 2011.

The most grotesque element in this coincidence is that in early November 2015, Brian Donald had advocated that migrants and refugees in Europe are “identified for exploitation, especially those of a young age, young women, and the unaccompanied”. By exploitation, he meant prostitution and illegal labour as the most likely outcomes. Funnily, this statement took place at a conference organized by the Santa Maria Group, set up by Pope Francis, and was officially organized by the Catholic Church.

Writing about the 10.000 missing children in Europe is a particularly difficult task. When a child loses their parent, the child becomes an orphan. On the contrary, there is no word to describe what happens to a parent that loses their child; language does not permit such sorrow to be symbolised. It remains ineffable, unspeakable, indescribable[1]. There is no collective responsibility for the disappearance of these children. There is only collective sorrow, grief, desolation and despair. Facing such a tragedy, the Europol’s Chief of Staff, like Pontius Pilate, washes his hands, but the future’s film industry will not vindicate him. In the same way, it did not vindicate the Archbishop Bernard Francis Law. In the far ahead 2046, we might be lucky to see the testimonies of Syrian children that were abused by trafficking networks in  Europe on the big screen. Those that they will have survived will describe, in every detail, the physical and bodily violence they experienced, the misery and abjection of the world they were brought up. And we will run to the cinemas to watch them, because their movie will be nominated for 6 Oscar Awards, and the actor playing Brian Donald for best supporting actor.

[1] For a more detailed discussion about the profound lack of symbolic representation and the dislocation of time, sensed by bereaved parents, see: Denise Riley, Time Lived, without Its Flow, Capsule Editions, 2012.

Marita Vyrgioti is a Ph.D student in the Department of Psychosocial Studies and an Anniversary Scholarship Holder from the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy, at Birkbeck University, London. She currently works under the supervision of Professor Stephen Frosh, on a thesis titled: ‘Devouring: a Psychosocial Critique of Sovereignty’. Before joining MaMSIE as an intern, she worked as an Editorial Assistant at Common Ground Publishing and as a Researcher in Educational Programs at the European Public Law Organization (EPLO).