Why I Made A TV Show To Make Viewers Remember Missing Refugee Children

TV show The Tunnelhas never shied away from the socio-political state of Europe so almost two years ago, when I took over as showrunner for series three, I knew it would be impossible to ignore Europe’s biggest issue: the refugee crisis.

Following the devastating images of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy found drowned on a Turkish Beach trying to flee Syria, the media upped their reporting of the crisis. We were bombarded by images of the Calais camps, riddled with disease and violence. There were reports of hundreds drowning when crammed dinghies sank.  What exactly were these refugees risking their lives to reach? Compassion? A caring Europe to nurture and protect them after the hell they had survived? Instead, if they were lucky enough to escape death en route, they got the camps. If the series was going to continue it’s investigation of Anglo-French relations and policing, it was going to be impossible to ignore what was happening just yards from Eurotunnel itself.

But then I read something that made the occasional drowning or the squalid camps pale into insignificance. Ten thousand refugee children were missing in Europe. TEN THOUSAND. Alone, vulnerable, separated from parents. It should have been front page news in every paper.  Press conferences, family members desperate to find them making tearful appeals. There should have been investigations, search teams, posts with their photographs shared on Facebook. That’s what happens here when one British child goes missing, isn’t it? We quite rightly plough endless resources into finding them. But not these children. There were a handful of articles in the broadsheets, then nothing. No one cared.

How did they vanish in the first place?  Many were sent away by their families in the hope they would have a better chance of survival. Some were split from parents by smugglers as a way of controlling them. Others became separated in the chaos and were forced to continue their journey alone. So where are they now? No-one really knows. It seems when a refugee child goes missing, border agencies are unlikely to file a missing person’s report.

Stories surfaced of people-smugglers bringing children into Europe, then making even more money by selling them into the sex trade or slavery. Now the tabloids cared. Not about the vulnerability of missing children. They cared that refugee children being prostituted or sold to organised begging gangs, might evoke public sympathy and damage their unjustified war on refugees. So just in case the public stopped believing in a plague of filthy rats flooding our country, taking our jobs, they reassured us that most of these child refugees were in fact grown men pretending to be under eighteen to get a free ride to the UK. It wasn’t true but it did the job. The headlines about missing children faded away and public sympathy went with it. But they were still missing. All ten thousand of them. Let down and ignored by politicians, border agencies and then by us.

This was my starting point for The Tunnel: Vengeance. Rather than opening with the horror of a huge terrorist attack or a gruesome violent murder, episode one has the unusual body count of zero. Instead the series starts with the emotional horror of a child-swap. Three refugee children vanish while being smuggled, the trafficker and his boat left to burn. Meanwhile, a middle class mum puts her three blonde, blue-eyed darlings to bed – the kind of children who would get an investigation, Facebook posts and a public sympathy. But when she goes to get them up, her perfect little angels are gone, and in their place, three filthy refugee kids.

This child swap marks a question at the very heart of this series of The Tunnel; what is a human life worth? Why is it we value the lives of missing Western children so much more than the lives of missing refugee children? How can so many be missing and as a nation we seem to care so little?

This isn’t the first time we’ve been here. As one of the characters at the heart of the story will remind us, there was Bosnia – a civil war that raged from 1991-1995 and resulted in 100,000 deaths, two million refugees driven from their homes. Mothers put their children into the hands of strangers during one-hour ceasefires in the hope they could get them to safety. Other children survived by hiding while their whole village was slaughtered around them, ending up on convoys taken to refugee camps. What became of those children? Those mothers who sent their children to safety? If they survived, who did they grow up to be? Did we treat those Eastern European refugees with compassion and understanding? Sometimes it’s useful to look back at history even if only to see that we failed to learn from it the first time.

All children’s lives must be valued equally. I hope as well as The Tunnel: Vengeance being a thrilling ride of a crime show, baroque, darkly humorous beset by a rollercoaster ride of twists and turns, it will also make viewers think about those missing refugee children. About where they are right now and about what the cost may be to our humanity if we continue to ignore them.

The Tunnel: Vengeance begins on Thursday 14th December at 9pm on Sky Atlantic – all six episodes will be available to watch on the same day on demand and on streaming service Now TV.