Missing people and the desperate search by those left behind


People around the world go missing every day. Behind every one of these people are loved ones who miss them. Their feelings of loss, uncertainty and hopelessness are shared by thousands in Africa.

Owing to mass migration, conflict, political instability and natural disasters, millions of people go missing every year. While many eventually reach their destinations and maintain contact with their families, those that don’t are often lost and forgotten to the world.

‘The most difficult is to live without news about my son. I often think about what happened to him, what has become of him. Every night I think of him and I cry,’ said a member of one of the families interviewed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Cameroon in 2019.

Some of those who go missing lose touch voluntarily when they move to a new place and ‘disappear’ themselves. However there are many who fall out of touch involuntarily, without access to communication or contact information, especially those detained, abducted or trafficked. There are also others who die, and their remains go unrecovered or unidentified.

Comprehensive and readily verifiable statistics on the number of missing people still don’t exist

As of July 2020, African families from 41 countries were looking for more than 6 000 missing relatives thought to be in Africa or Europe. About 80% of those missing originate from 11 countries alone. These are Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan. More than 28% of them are children.

The International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances on 30 August was first marked globally following an official declaration by the United Nations a decade ago. Originally it recognised the plight of people forcibly disappeared, including through arrest, detention and abduction. Today it has evolved to include those missing from their homes and families for a range of reasons.

However commemorating the day is not enough. Governments and humanitarian organisations do try to locate the missing, but more needs to be done. In Africa most families of the disappeared are left to deal with the challenges themselves.

Over the past decade, the number of missing people registered by the ICRC with families in Africa has increased dramatically. By 30 June 2020, close to 44 000 people were still missing on the continent. No reliable information exists to confirm whether they are alive or dead. In some cases, people are separated from their loved ones for decades before they are found and reconnected with their families.

Missing people need to be located and identified with greater efficiency and certainty

Compounding this are the many people missing at sea and on land after attempting journeys made more dangerous by the increased securitisation of migration in and out of Africa. In 2014, following an upsurge in migration from Africa to Europe that saw a concomitant rise in deaths at sea, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) established the Missing Migrants Project. The project aimed to better document those who die or disappear and are presumed dead while on their journey.

Since then, the IOM has recorded over 33 000 missing people. The actual number is probably much higher, as not all deaths and disappearances are reported, and sometimes there is insufficient information to identify people or connect them with their relatives.

Many people are displaced in camps or hard-to-reach places such as detention facilities. Others may not have any contact points, or means to access them. In this chasm of uncertainty, their loved ones continue to search for them. Seeking closure, they wish to know the fate and whereabouts of their relatives but are often confronted with legal and administrative hurdles, financial difficulties, emotional strain and social challenges that make this difficult.

Missing people need to be located and identified with greater efficiency and certainty. Already developments in telecommunications, advances in the field of genetics and forensics, and the creation of dedicated databases have helped. However challenges remain. In particular, comprehensive and readily verifiable statistics on the number of missing people still don’t exist.

Communication technology can reduce the numbers who go missing and lessen their families’ grief

Central databases and information exchange between agencies, governments and non-governmental organisations, as well as coordination with families of the missing, could go a long way in addressing this challenge. Using advances in technology and telecommunications would undoubtedly reduce the number of those missing, lessen the grief of those left behind, and provide much-needed closure for thousands.

In 2020, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and the ICRC embarked on a joint research project whose findings are aimed at informing the public and policymakers of the plight of missing people and their families. The project is part of the ICRC’s efforts to raise awareness about the issue in Africa, and connects with the work the ISS does on advancing evidence-based approaches to human security.

Together the two organisations strive to help address the problem and encourage governments and intergovernmental agencies to take the lead on assisting affected families and communities.

Ottilia Anna Maunganidze, Head of Special Projects, ISS Pretoria

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Photo: Tambacounda region, Senegal. A mother is showing a picture of her son, who has been missing since he emigrated to Europe by boat, ICRC

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