In late May of last year, I noticed a poster on the wall of a police station in Athens, Greece. It was glossy, featuring the slightly blurry photo of a blonde white girl with almond eyes and gently pursed lips: an arresting, uncanny face.
The room was filled with officially-designated refugees who were there to complete one of the bureaucratic tasks requisite of their asylum status. I was there accompanying a man who had been granted asylum nearly a year earlier but had somehow been denied the papers he needed to prove his refugee status. We had all been waiting a long time and the children in the room were getting restless. One, an energetic little boy, began to move about, tugging on his father’s sleeve and bobbing in and out of line. I was bored too, and examined the poster on the wall more closely. I realized with a start why it appeared so uncanny: it wasn’t a photograph at all, but a digitally manipulated image. The girl had gone missing in Portugal in 2007, over a decade earlier. When I Googled her name, I discovered that her case was, as one reporter put it, the “most heavily reported missing-person case in modern history.”
Many refugee children go missing every year. Like them, Madeleine McCann was traveling with her parents in the Mediterranean when she disappeared. But unlike them, she became an international media sensation, her image adorning the front cover of British tabloids for months afterward. Unlike them, her face — or someone’s imagination of it — is on the wall of a police station in Greece 10 years after the fact, its presence attesting to the idea that the public has some interest in finding her. And unlike them, she is the subject of a new eight-part documentary series from Netflix, a labored, dramatic rehashing that aims to answer the question what happened? but instead raises another: why did this get made, and why now?
This gripe may seem tangential to an examination of the new series, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann. But this representational imbalance trails and pervades the show — I found it impossible to watch the series without thinking of the ghosts of stories like and unlike it that will never experience such treatment.
The first shot of the new documentary series echoes the poster that I saw in Athens, exhorting viewers to come forward with any new information that they might have about the case. The idea that a viewer with new information about Madeleine would be more likely to sit down for a binge-session of the case than Google the relevant police contact information is laughable; the shot is rhetorical, intended to inject a sense of urgency to the series. But there is nothing contained within the eight hours that follow to justify this implication of contemporary relevance.
Beside the central fact of the girl’s disappearance, the story itself lacks intrigue: it’s mostly a record of an extremely convoluted police investigation, extended not by new discoveries or developments, but due to the outsize material resources that came along with international attention (as the series notes, donations poured in from British celebrities such as J.K. Rowling, and the Portuguese investigation also benefitted from UK police assistance and disproportionate internal budget allocations). As if in response, the directors went overboard trying to paint on window dressing. The recollections of former suspects and police involved with the case are reanimated by actors, who gesture in slow motion. The series is jam-packed with extraneous information — even an extremely detail-oriented observer would be hard-pressed to care about the mundane history of the resort town where the families were staying, or the history of Russia’s economic woes leading to one suspect’s presence in Portugal. There are endless repeat shots, a foreboding score, and plenty of speculation.
Brush away all this fluff, and the series basically coalesces around two main themes: the idea of innocence violated, and the awareness that this could happen to anyone. These leitmotifs have everything to do with the presumed “newsworthiness” of the story, even after so much time has passed, and also with why similar stories of refugee children who disappear are not treated with the same narrative weight.
If it can be tied to a larger political issue, the suffering of children becomes symbolic.
When the body of a three-year-old Syrian child named Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach, newspapers around the world branded him the face of the “refugee crisis.” His image became metonymy; he was not allowed to remain a single human child. “Tiny Victim of a Human Catastrophe,” one headline proclaimed; “Europe divided,” said another.
At this point, a few years on, there is an added layer of remove: Kurdi’s death has come to signify not even the crisis itself, but the moment that people around the world became aware that the crisis was happening. That visibility, of course, did little to change the fate of other children like him: a host of EU policies that restrict safe and legal routes to asylum on the continent ensure that refugees continue to drown in the Mediterranean three years later. The highly publicized deaths of Jakelin Caal Maquin, Juan de Leon Gutierrez, and Felipe Alonzo-Gomez in ICE detention centers will likely function in much the same way for the United States’ own migration crisis.
And these are only the children whose deaths made them briefly famous. For each of them, a thousand more have died or gone missing with little fanfare whatsoever. The Missing Migrants Project reports 5,603 people dead or disappeared in the Mediterranean alone since 2014, the year the project began. According to the Migration Data Portal, children and young people accounted for 24.7 percent of all refugees in 2017; statistically, it is safe to assume that well over a thousand of these disappearances represent children.
Meanwhile, many more unaccompanied minors have vanished on the continent. In 2016, data collected from just three of 28 member states (Italy, Sweden, and Germany) suggested that over 12,000 solo refugee children had disappeared from those countries alone. This does not mean that all these children have died, but it does suggest how easily refugee children slip through the cracks of countries that have a duty to protect them — and how little their disappearances seem to register beyond as a terrifying statistic.
These children’s disappearances and deaths go largely unreported because their parents don’t have access to media outlets, because they happen with regularity, and because they can be attributed to a larger phenomenon (“the refugee crisis”) and thus explained and understood. Perhaps most crucially, there is no question of identification or “relatability” in the stories of missing refugee children. In one of Disappearance’s most revealing interviews, which occurs late in the first episode, the former head of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children opines on which missing person cases attract attention. It comes down to, he says, whether “average people, average parents, identify with the circumstance. Does a parent think, there but for the grace of god?”
People who might watch a Netflix series — the imagined “viewing public” — by and large do not see their own children reflected in the stories of refugee children. They do not hear the news that a seven-year-old child is missing after the small boat that he was crossing the Mediterranean in sprung a leak and think, there but for the grace of god, because they cannot imagine that their child would ever be crossing the Mediterranean under such circumstances in the first place.
The specter of innocence destroyed is a powerful one for narrative, and for selling papers. Throughout the series, Madeleine’s purity and helplessness — and the possibility of its violation — is used as a rhetorical strategy by the media, by the makers of the series, and, it must be noted, by her parents (her mother carries the stuffed animal left behind in her empty bed to each press conference they attend). Journalists and news editors refer to it in sometimes unsettling ways, trying to explain why the case got so much coverage. “She was a very attractive little girl,” one says of the missing three-year-old. The most widely disseminated image of Madeleine is one in which she’s looking up at the camera, her eyes wide, the picture of innocence. When the possibility of a local pedophile snatching Madeleine is first floated, it spreads like wildfire, casting suspicion on more than one innocent man in the process.
In March, the Women’s Refugee Commission released a report detailing the shocking extent of sexual violence against men and boys on the Central Mediterranean route toward Italy. I saw no mainstream press coverage of this report; refugee boys are tarred with other signifiers than “innocent,” so their abuse both runs inconveniently counter to an existing narrative and does not generate the same sort of prurient curiosity so active around cases like Madeleine’s. In 2016, when unaccompanied children were brought to the UK from the French refugee camp known as the Jungle, many of the same British tabloids who stirred up so much intrigue in the McCann case chose to run fake age analyses on their images, claiming that the “children” were as old as 38.
Meanwhile, a nine-year-old American citizen was recently detained while crossing the US-Mexico border because the statement she gave authorities was deemed “inconsistent.” In other words, border agents applied the same evaluation rubric to her that they would use for an adult. Over the past few months, we’ve watched the farce of migrant children brought into immigration court alone as the adults in the room carry on with procedure. Last May, Trump said of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the US: “They’re not innocent.”
At a glance, politics barely enter into the investigation into Madeleine’s disappearance. A reference is made to drug trafficking between North Africa and mainland Europe as a possible explanation for the presence of unsavory elements in the area, but there is far more talk about how safe the Algarve region is — a number of interviewees characterize the place as an idyllic, “family-friendly” resort town exempted from the muck of normal life.
Madeline’s disappearance and probable death cannot be easily fit into a larger narrative about some troubling phenomenon like gun violence, public health, migration: reasons why children die. Because of this, it becomes symbolic of something much more oceanic. Over and over, interviewees use the same words and stock phrases to describe the McCann disappearance: “inexplicable,” “unexplainable,” “it doesn’t happen here, you just don’t hear of it.” “Children just don’t disappear from their beds in the middle of the night,” someone says. That phrase, “There but for the grace of god go I,” is repeated so often it becomes like a disquieting bass line running throughout the series.
The McCann case seems most haunting for what it suggests about the potential abyss at the heart of white middle-class life — the idea that no amount of privilege can exempt you from a parent’s worst nightmare.
Fearful that the new Netflix series might hinder their chances of ever getting Madeleine back, her parents refused to have anything to do with it; their perspective is restricted to voice-overs from the time of her disappearance. Lacking that crucial access, the directors put local residents and other holidaymakers who interacted briefly with the McCanns during their fateful vacation in front of the camera. But the perspective perhaps most represented is actually that of other journalists: the husband-and-wife team who wrote a 2014 book on Madeleine, but also plenty of reporters, British and Portuguese alike, who followed the case from the beginning.
The series traces their initial interest in the case to their suspicion of various local residents, to their eventual pursuit of the idea that Madeleine’s parents were involved in her disappearance. It is critical of the media circus surrounding the case, showing how journalists not only fanned the flames of conjecture and paranoia surrounding Madeleine’s case but in some cases intervened into the investigation itself. In days and weeks after Madeleine’s disappearance, many journalists on the scene played detective, hunting for clues alongside police. The documentary shows the human cost of this freewheeling speculation: One local man who had been volunteering his services as a translator was hauled in for questioning and became the target of endless and slanderous rumor-mongering after a British reporter told police that his behavior seemed bizarre to her.
Though Disappearance’s greatest strength is probably its clear-eyed portrayal of the perils of this media hype, the series fails to acknowledge that its own existence is a function of the same phenomenon that fueled tabloid coverage of the McCann case all along: an obsession with the disappearance and possible sexual violation of young white girls. It presents a less sensationalized and more measured, fact-driven treatment of the case than those tabloids did, but the underlying fears and identifications that it plays on are the same.
In a world with many missing children, to tell the stories of some and not others is always a political choice. By continuing to capitalize on the tragedy of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance, the makers of this new series commit both an act of personal cruelty to her family and one of discursive violence against the many children whose disappearances and deaths are considered too explainable to be newsworthy.