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7 January 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Child abductions and urban legends
spiked editor Mick Hume's Notebook in The Times (London).

by Mick Hume

  • The worst reports to come out of the tsunami disaster are surely the claims that many orphaned or lost children are being kidnapped by predators.
But is this horror story just too bad to be true? There appears to be little evidence to support warnings of mass child abduction. To me, it looks more as if the West's own unhealthy obsession with seeing child abuse everywhere is now being projected on to the Asian disaster zone.

Child kidnapping hit the news this week with reports that Kristian Walker, a 12-year-old Swedish boy separated from his family by the tsunami, had been abducted from a Thai hospital by 'a moustached European man'. After two days of worldwide media panic and an international police operation, it became clear that the missing boy had never been admitted to the hospital, far less abducted from it. The suspected paedophile turned out to be a good Samaritan from Germany, who had helped to reunite two German boys and a Swedish youth with their parents.

So the only report to date of a named child being abducted was revealed as untrue. That has not stopped Unicef and other child protection and aid organisations spreading stories that thousands of children are at risk of abduction. These have been prominently reported under headlines such as 'Perverts on the prowl' and '$50 buys a kid in Asia chaos'.

Of course terrible things can happen in a disaster zone. But look for the evidence to support these stories, and what you find are 'unconfirmed reports', 'rumours' and 'suspicions', alongside repeated references to a single anonymous SMS text message, allegedly offering Indonesian children for illegal adoption. Hard evidence does not come much softer. Yet Unicef's director of child protection in Indonesia felt free to announce from her office:

'I'm sure it is happening. It's a perfect opportunity for these guys to move in.' Thousands of miles away, self-styled child protection experts in Europe or the US seem even more certain that 'these guys' must be abducting tsunami orphans.

Our societies have become increasingly paranoid about child safety, imagining abuse behind every closed door and a paedophile in every playground. It seems that many are indulging their own darkest fears by proxy. The Unicef director's speculation about 'whether these children are frankly turned into child slaves, or abused and exploited...put to work - domestic labour, sex trade, a whole series of potential abuses' sounds more like somebody's horror fantasy than a factual account.

Child kidnapping stories have long been the stuff of urban legend, and such rumours spread like wildfire via the internet. Entering 'kidnapped children' into Google got me nearly 800,000 search results, including reports of 'Swedish children for sale in Palestine', which turned out to be a custody battle between a Swedish mother and her estranged Muslim husband. The 'unconfirmed reports' of abducted tsunami orphans have added further grist to the rumour mill.

Turning the hunt for child abductors into a major post-tsunami panic seems likely only to worsen the trauma, divert precious resources and disorientate recovery efforts. Yet for some it appears that no situation, however horrifying, can ever be bad enough, so that they have to make a morbid melodrama out of a human crisis.
  • The remembrance of the tsunami victims has prompted some concern about the inflation of silence.
For years, a one-minute silence was the most that any death or disaster was thought to deserve in Britain, with a two-minute silence reserved for the dead of two world wars. The EU upped the ante with a three-minute silence after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and went for three minutes again this week. This smacks of competitive compassion, of wanting to show that although some really care, we really, really care, at a time when the proliferation of one-minute silences (especially at football matches) already risks cheapening the currency.

Can I suggest that we go farther still, and impose at least a three-month silence on any more personal tsunami stories, pictures of bloated corpses, or inane comments about the 'meaning' of a tidal wave? Many people have said that 'there are no words' to describe the horror. In which case, perhaps we should just shut up and let survivors get on with rebuilding their lives.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked

This article is republished from The Times (London)


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