Masood Hotak was displaced for the first time when he left Afghanistan, trying to reach Europe, then displaced for a second time when he disappeared from the ranks of migrants and smugglers en route. His brother Javed mounted a multi-year, multi-country effort to track him down, to no avail. For Harper’s, Matthew Wolfe accompanied Javed during his search to tell the story of the profundity of this disappearance.
In the midst of this unprecedented wave of dislocation, thousands of migrants disappear every year. These disappearances are a function, largely, of the imperatives of secret travel. Lacking official permission to cross borders, “irregular migrants” are compelled to move covertly, avoiding the gaze of the state. In transit, they enter what the anthropologist Susan Bibler Coutin has called “spaces of nonexistence.” Barred from formal routes, some of them are pushed onto more hazardous paths—traversing deserts on foot or navigating rough seas with inflatable rafts. Others assume false identities, using forged or borrowed documents. In either case, aspects of the migrant’s identity are erased or deformed.
This invisibility cuts both ways. Even as it allows an endangered group to remain undetected, it renders them susceptible to new kinds of abuse. De facto stateless, they lack a government’s protection from exploitation by smugglers and unscrupulous authorities alike. Seeking safe harbor, many instead end up incarcerated, hospitalized, ransomed, stranded, or sold into servitude. In Europe, there is no comprehensive system in place to trace the missing or identify the dead. Already living in the shadows, migrants who go missing become, in the words of Jenny Edkins, a politics professor at the University of Manchester, “double disappeared.”
Taken as a whole, their plight constitutes an immense, mostly hidden catastrophe. The families of these migrants are left to mount searches—alone and with minimal resources—of staggering scope and complexity. They must attempt to defy the entropy of a progressively more disordered world—seeking, against long odds, to sew together what has been ripped apart.