Displaced Children and Stolen Babies in Contemporary Spain

This post was contributed by Dr Diana Marre, visiting research fellow at the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research (BISR). Here, Dr Marre gives an insight into her BISR Event on 29 June 2016: “Displaced Children and Stolen Babies in Contemporary Spain”

ConcentracionOn 16 June, ten days before the forthcoming Spanish presidential election, several organisations that represent children and babies who were victims of enforced disappearances in Spain between the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the 1990s, called for a public protest in Madrid using the slogan ‘Stop Francoist impunity’.

This call for public action is one of many that have followed the presentation of two reports to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2014. The reports focussed on enforced or involuntary child disappearances during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975), and the transition to the restoration of democracy (1976-1990). They argued that the only efforts to investigate these enforced disappearances were by victims’ families or non-governmental organisations, and noted that not only was the state not contributing to such efforts they had in fact systematically blocked or ignored research into the disappearances. Consequently the total number who have fallen victim to these enforced disappearances remains unknown.

Both reports referred to three groups of victims. Firstly, those who are still in mass graves awaiting exhumation, which consists of around 120,000 unidentified bodies in more than 400 mass graves. Secondly, there are the ‘war children’, who were the sons and daughters of the dead, imprisoned and vanquished during the Civil War and who were either adopted or placed in orphanages or similar institutions. Due to the lack of research, there is no clear data on how many children were victims of this practice. Thirdly, the reports referred to the so-called ‘stolen babies’ of Spain. Most of these babies were born using the practice of ‘twilight birth’ between 1950 and 1990, and were declared to be stillborn or to have died immediately after birth. They were then removed from their families and adopted. These victims were the children of single, poor or illiterate women or young couples with multiple children. Again, it is difficult to know the precise number of ‘stolen babies’, but current estimates suggest there were between 200,000 and 300,000 victims.

About the event

This event will ask why, in Spain, the enforced displacement of children in the ways described above still remains unrecognized and unpunished. We will examine what is considered to be one of the biggest, long-lasting and most wide-spread abductions of underage people, loss of custody by biological families and loss of

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identity in the West. As an ex judge of the Spanish National High Court has noted, these enforced disappearances were a result of a ‘peculiar Spanish form of ‘legal’ disappearance of people during the Civil War and post-war period through a pseudo-juridical system that gave ‘legal’ coverage to the systematic abduction system of children’ (Garzón 2008).

This event will examine the role of fear and public secrets – the “unknown knowns” (Simmel 1906) – to achieve the aim of “remembering to forget” (Mookherjee 2006), the objective of the post-Franco dictatorship amnesty laws (1976, 1977), often referred to as the “laws of oblivion”.

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Works Cited

  • Garzón, B. (2008), Auto, vol. 53 de 2008 E, Madrid, Administración de Justicia, Juzgado Central de Instrucción n.º 5 Audiencia Nacional.
  • Mookherjee, N. (2006), ‘Remembering to forget’: public secrecy and memory of sexual violence in the Bangladesh war of 1971, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 433-450.
  • Simmel, G. (1906), The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies, American Journal of Sociology, 11(4):441-498.
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Five years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?

This post was contributed by Dr Barbara Zollner, lecturer in Middle East Politics, Department of Politics. Here Dr Zollner offers an insight into issues to be discussed at a public colloquium at Birkbeck (“Five years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?”) on Friday 10 June. The colloquium is run by Birkbeck Institute for Social Research

‘There is no freedom when you are in fear’; so goes the title strip of the song Akher Okhneya (Last Song) by the Egyptian music-group Cairokee. The rap, which is shot on a deserted railway-line in Cairo, echoes the feelings of many young Egyptians. The mass-movement against authoritarianism in Middle Eastern countries, commonly known as the Arab Spring, gave hope to their call for political and personal freedom.

Thousands joined the protest, but subsequently many saw themselves excluded from democracy-building. Fewer continue to dream of revolution today. The view of these shabab (literally, young people, but usually refers to the Tahrir movement) is that Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood ‘hijacked’ the prospect of political change. This led them to side with the Tamarrod movement against President Mursi, which in turn opened the door for al-Sisi’s military coup.

Now, five years after their Arab Spring, Egypt faces another authoritarian military regime under President al-Sisi that uses nationalist overtones to crush any social movement, any contentious politics, any dissent.

‘The beneficiary is the one who controls you, the one who’s making you passive, who’s dictating you where to go, the one who’s predominating you. They imprisoned you inside your mind, the bars are your fear. You are afraid to think free, because you are afraid they might catch you.’ Cairokee, Akher Oghniya

 

The future of democracy looks bleak

Egypt, although an obvious case, is not the only example that the hopes associated with the Arab Spring are crushed by new authoritarianism, civil war, ethnic and sectarian strife. All over the Middle East, whether in Gulf oil-monarchies, eastern-Mediterranean and north-African republics (with perhaps Tunisia as a remarkable exception) and even in constitutional monarchies, the future of democracy looks rather bleak.

Within this turmoil, social movements (SM) are severely restrained in their activities, yet they continue to shout HURIYYA – FREEDOM. It is these movements, that continue a struggle for political reform across the Middle East, that are the focal point for a one day colloquium at Birkbeck.

Despite considerable interest in the current regional crisis, there is surprisingly little systematic research on the responsibility of SMs in successful or indeed failed democratic transitions. The short period of the Arab Spring provides rich material to explore this theme. It allows us to analyse, compare and theorise on specific empirical cases, including Islamist and secular movements that depart from the mainstream focus.

Questions arise such as whether and, if so, to what extent, SMs are responsible for the failure of democratic transition in the Middle East. Moreover, what happened to SMs and SMOs five years after the Arab Spring? Did they simply implode or did they reconfigure their political activism, potentially even turning towards violence?

The one-day colloquium intends to explore these issues. It seeks to bring together Middle East experts with an interest in contentious politics to study how these relate to processes of fundamental political change such as democratic transition, civil war, the rise of extremist movements and counter-revolutions.

“5 years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?” – a one day Colloquium, run by Birkbeck Institute for Social Research, will be held at Birkbeck on Friday 10 June.

Book on to the colloquium and view the full programme here

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Racism and Nationalism after the Scottish Referendum and 2015 General Election

This post was contributed by Dr Brendan McGeever of the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, Birkbeck)

Racism-Nationalism-in-the-UKOn Friday November 13 the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research very generously hosted a one-day colloquium on the theme ‘Racism and Nationalism after the Scottish Referendum and 2015 General Election’. The event brought together seven speakers to address the relationship between racism and nationalism in the Scottish, Welsh, English and Northern Irish contexts. The rationale for doing so was born out of a desire to reflect on the historic events of the past year or so – the Scottish Referendum of September 2014 and the General Election of May 2015.

With the dramatic electoral surge of the Scottish National Party and the prospect of the EU Referendum to come, the British state, it seems, has entered a new phase of constitutional crisis. In these changing times, with UKIP also on the rise electorally and the future of the Union seeming uncertain, the colloquium offered a timely opportunity to explore the extent to which racism across Britain is finding expression through the assertion of new nationalisms.

‘Non-racial’ Wales, and Unionism in Northern Ireland

The day was split into three sessions. In the first of these, Dr Bethan Harries (University of Manchester) presented on racism and nationalism in Wales, and Dr Robbie McVeigh addressed the Northern Irish context. Dr Harries began proceedings by showing how a discourse of national ‘innocence’ has led to an erasure of Welsh complicity in colonialism. The dominant political narrative in Wales, Dr Harries argued, is not ‘post-racial’ but actually ‘non-racial’, and it presents serious barriers to the elaboration of an anti-racist politics in the here and now.

In the second presentation, Dr McVeigh offered a stark picture of Northern Ireland, where the decline of Unionism as a political force is leading to the articulation of a specifically defensive type of racist politics that is not just colour-coded, but anti-Catholic as well. Dr McVeigh further argued that as Unionism continues to be rooted in a shrinking demographic base, the politics of racism and British nationalism will likely come to be posed in ever sharper terms.

Ethnic and national belonging in Scotland

The second session was dedicated entirely to Scotland, and included presentations by Dr Nasar Meer (University of Strathclyde) and Dr Brendan McGeever (Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, Birkbeck). In his presentation, Dr Meer surveyed elite political discourses in Scotland on ethnic and national belonging, showing that despite the real advances that have been made in recent years, there remains much to do.

By referencing various interviews with members of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government, Dr Meer showed how implicit hierarchies continue to shape elite understandings of Scottish nationhood. In a paper co-written with Professor Satnam Virdee (University of Glasgow), Dr McGeever suggested the question of racism has been largely occluded from the national conversation that has been taking place since the beginning of the Independence referendum campaigns, and that this has further consolidated the longstanding Scottish myth that there is ‘no problem here’.

This national re-imagining of Scotland as a uniquely ‘tolerant’ society acquires its powerful appeal, argued McGeever, precisely through its capacity to define itself in opposition to that which it is not (e.g. British/English). According to McGeever, not only does this project Scotland’s disproportionate role in Slavery and Empire onto England, but it arguably prevents any serious discussion of racism in the country today.

England, north and south

The third and final session consisted of two papers on England, the first given by Professor Anoop Nayak (Newcastle University), who explored racism and nationalism in North East England, and the second by Dr Steve Garner (Birmingham City University) who discussed south England. Professor Nayak’s contribution took the form of a historical-geography of the North East, showing how its transition from being a region of production to consumption has been accompanied by further transformations in the politics of racism and identity. Professor Nayak argued the case for decoupling whiteness from nationalism, and suggested that English nationalism is not of high capital in the North East and that local and regional identifications remain much stronger. This, he argued, is reflected in both the politics of racism and anti-racism.

The final paper by Dr Garner presented a quite different picture of South England. Based on a range of qualitative interviews with white working class participants in Bristol and Plymouth, Dr Garner showed how English national belonging is deeply racialised, and is structured by a ‘moral economy of whiteness’. Garner examined the affective and emotional routes through such racialised nationalism is articulated, showing how ‘nation’, ‘welfare’ and ‘immigration’ provide the frame through which racism and (localised) English nationalism come to be expressed.

Finally, Professor Claire Alexander (University of Manchester) gave a set of closing remarks that offered insights into each of the presentations. Professor Alexander closed the event by inviting participants to reconsider Englishness and English nationhood, and to question why minorities in England continue to find them so difficult to claim as their own.

With Britain’s constitutional crisis remaining far from resolved, it seems that the various issues discussed in this colloquium are unlikely to go away any time soon.

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(Homepage slider image caption: ‘UK Grunge Flag’, CC Nicholas Raymond via Flickr)

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