Who are missing persons?
Families in Ayacucho, Peru, knit rectangles with the
names of their missing loved ones to be sewn
together to make the "scarf of hope".
© ICRC/BURGOS, Marina
In armed conflict, natural or man-made disasters, migration and other humanitarian crises, hundreds of families become separated and are left without knowledge of what has happened to their loved ones or where they are. The persons whose whereabouts and fate remain unknown are considered “missing”. The Family Links Network develops different types of activities to locate the missing persons and a multi-disciplinary action to address the needs of the families.
Who is affected by disappearance?
Disappearance affects many dimensions of a society.
First, the missing person is a victim.
Second, the family members of the missing person are also victims. The uncertainty affects the emotional well-being of the families and the suffering caused by the disappearance of a loved one continues until the person’s fate has been ascertained. In addition, the families face multiple difficulties as a direct result. They may be confronted by specific legal, administrative, social and economic challenges. All these difficulties may prevent the families from rebuilding their lives after the disappearance, sometimes for many years.
"The most difficult thing to overcome is this constant state of nervousness that does not leave you, that at any moment, he could be knocking on the door. During the night, I listen with all my ears and each time I hear a small noise, the first thing that comes to my mind is that my son is back." Father of a missing person in South Caucasus
Third, the impact of the disappearance is felt beyond the missing person’s immediate family; it also affects the communities to which the missing persons and their families belong and can be a threat to the stability and peaceful coexistence of affected communities.
How can the disappearance of loved ones affect the needs of their families?
Photos of missing persons since the 1999 crisis in
Kosovo and flowers line a public building in
© Norweigan Red Cross/SALTBONES, Olav
There are many different contexts in which persons disappear. Likewise, the needs expressed by the families of the missing persons are also varied.
A conference of experts convened by the ICRC in 2003 recognized a number of specific needs experienced by families of missing persons. Those needs had been confirmed over many years of first-hand experience.
The needs include the need to know, the need to proceed with commemorative rituals, the need to receive legal and administrative, economic, psychological and psychosocial support, the need to be protected against security threats, the need to receive recognition of the suffering experienced and, for some, the need to have access to courts of law.
How can those needs be met?
Given the diversity of needs caused by a disappearance, a holistic response is crucial. That kind of response envisages action at all levels, i.e. the families of the missing persons, the community, and the local and national authorities. A range of different measures are necessary: financial support, legal and administrative support, psychological and psychosocial support, etc.
The ICRC has developed a holistic approach of that kind. It operates on the premise that families can be helped through empathetic relationships and mutual support. The main goal of this method, referred to as "accompaniment," is to strengthen the abilities of individuals and families to cope with the difficulties relating to the disappearance of their relatives and to gradually regain social and emotional well-being. This can be achieved by drawing on their own resources and on those available in the community – local and national – as well as by creating a supportive network. The task of accompanying families does not call for a particular set of highly developed skills. However, it does require sound understanding of the families' situation and an aptitude for listening and for providing appropriate support when needed.
Who has responsibility for providing answers for the families of missing persons?
The ultimate responsibility for preventing disappearances and for clarifying what has happened to the missing persons and where they are lies with the State authorities, which have an obligation to enact and apply relevant laws and to make their provisions widely known. It is essential for the authorities concerned to be firmly committed to the tasks of preventing disappearances and of clarifying the fate and whereabouts of the missing persons, regardless of the circumstances of their disappearance or any other discriminatory traits of missing persons and their families.
Read more about missing persons on ICRC.org