When people go missing or become separated from their families it can have devastating and long-lasting effects on those left behind, who usually endure great suffering until they learn of their loved one’s fate and whereabouts – if, indeed, they ever do. In addition to having lost a relative, these families generally experience, or have experienced, other traumatizing events, such as displacement, threats to their lives and physical violence, or they have witnessed events of this kind.

In the aftermath of a conflict, certain categories of individuals continue to enjoy protection under international humanitarian law (IHL) long after the end of active hostilities or military operations. They include: those who have been, or continue to be, detained; the wounded and sick; the missing; the deceased; the displaced; and women and children affected by armed conflict. Families of those who go missing as a result of armed conflict are themselves victims of that conflict and, as such, should benefit from protection and assistance.

Though there is no explicit definition of “family” under international law, the definition of a family member of a missing person will, in principle, be found in domestic law. Family must be interpreted in a broad and flexible manner, in line with the relevant traditions, cultural values and contextual variations. Considering prolonged emotional dependency and mutual acceptance of relationships, “family” includes at least such close kin as:

  • children born in and out of wedlock, adopted children and stepchildren
  • life partners, whether by marriage or not · parents (including mothers-in-law, fathers-in-law and adoptive parents)
  • brothers and sisters born of the same parents, different parents, or adopted. 

Families of the missing and their needs

Families of missing persons have many of the same needs as other victims of armed conflict or violence and, as such, their needs must be considered in the global range of needs of all victims. Families of missing persons do, however, also have specific needs while they are awaiting clarification of their relative’s fate. The person who goes missing or remains unaccounted for is the primary individual affected, but the effects of their disappearance on close relatives – isolation, impoverishment, despair – can go beyond families to affect entire communities.

In some contexts, fear and mistrust in the community or between communities is such that families are unable to speak openly about their situation. Doing so might mean they run the risk of reprisals or being ostracized by their own community, which would otherwise be their main source of support. Where the fate and whereabouts of missing people remain undetermined, there can be a ripple effect beyond the community to the societal level. If not addressed and resolved, this can threaten trust-building and social cohesion even after a conflict has ended.

The needs of families of the missing were identified and officially recognized by the 2003 International Conference of Governmental and Non-Governmental Experts on the Missing, and, later that year, the 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent agreed on specific actions to assist families of the missing. Their needs include: knowing what has happened to a missing relative; being able to conduct commemorative rituals; receiving economic, psychological and psychosocial support; having their suffering acknowledged; and receiving justice. Until these needs are met, families cannot easily rebuild their lives.

The need to know

Families begin to search for their loved ones the minute they become aware they are missing and continue doing so until they receive credible information about their fate and/or whereabouts. They might visit government offices, institutions and organizations. Many scour prisons, battlefields, hospitals and morgues. They scrutinize the bodies of the dead, looking for familiar traits, or go to places that display personal belongings, clothing and jewellery from recovered human remains. Many continue searching until they find answers, even if it takes decades. In their eyes, calling off the search before then would be like abandoning the missing person for good.
The search is often a drawn-out process fraught with obstacles, including:

  • a lack of information from the authorities – for instance, in cases where there are indications that the person disappeared while under the responsibility of the police or the army. The authorities may show little willingness to find the person and inform the family
  • a lack of information on how to go about searching for somebody, an absence of mechanisms for ascertaining what has happened to people who have disappeared, or no organizations that can help them
  • the difficulty of proving that someone who has disappeared is dead. Most families need a body as proof that the person is really dead. However, in many contexts, there is no procedure for searching for, exhuming and identifying the bodies of people killed in connection with an armed conflict or other violence
  • irresponsible or unscrupulous individuals who peddle false information and spread rumours about missing persons. Families can fall victim to such people and may also be subjected to threats and reprisals during their efforts to trace loved ones.

Depending on the circumstances of how a person became separated from their loved ones or went missing, their family may have a legal right, under international law, to know the fate of their missing relative. In most situations, however, the status of “missing person” is not recognized and the families are therefore not entitled to any specific support.

Psychological and psychosocial needs

Uncertainty over a loved one’s whereabouts creates a particular kind of suffering and a range of psychological and psychosocial effects. Families often have no facts to clarify whether their loved one is alive or dead, or if dead, where the remains are located. Such loss is called “ambiguous loss”. Families often continue to hope that the missing person will return and so they may not feel that they can or should make changes to their lives. Others might blame themselves for the disappearance or feel guilty when their search efforts lead nowhere.

This ambiguous loss affects people in a variety of ways, and some might struggle with changed work or family responsibilities. Many curtail their social contacts, avoiding pleasurable activities or new relationships so as not to betray the missing person’s memory. In doing so, they neglect their own emotional needs.

Families can be affected by changed roles and duties, communication can break down as family members may avoid expressing grief, fear, or anxiety or even discussing the missing person, in order to spare others from pain.

Uncertainty and social isolation

In many contexts, a missing person has no defined social status, which makes it hard for that person’s family to feel part of a recognized group. Unlike relatives of the confirmed dead, who have a specific status as mourners, their awful uncertainty means they cannot participate in codified rituals – such as funeral rites – that would help give their experience meaning and lessen their pain.

The lack of established social status and ritual for the missing and their families is particularly acute in places where religion and tradition are at the heart of communal life. Without burials or commemorative sites, families may struggle to keep a missing person’s memory alive, so that person fades into oblivion. The circumstances in which a person went missing can affect a family’s relationship with its community, especially if the person who has disappeared was possibly affiliated with a certain group, which might attract suspicion. In such cases, communities might stigmatize or even ostracize the families of missing persons.

Economic, Administrative and Legal Needs

When a person goes missing the family often falls into financial difficulty, especially when the absent person was the breadwinner. Families often spend a lot of money trying to find the missing person. They might sell land, livestock or other assets to pay for the effort, borrow money or quit their jobs so they can travel long distances to search for their relatives. Rarely do authorities consider “missing” to be a legal status. This lack of recognition affects families’ rights to property, inheritance, guardianship of children, even remarriage. Family members are seldom entitled to the same social benefits as those whose relatives are confirmed as deceased. They might not have access to bank accounts or savings and might inherit any outstanding debts of the missing person.

If families are not aware of their legal rights, they are unlikely to exercise them. Authorities are often unaware of the difficulties families face and, though aware of the law, they may be unfamiliar with its application. Even when authorities move to adjust legislation to meet people’s needs, the process can be long and the financial losses for families will continue to add up. Other bureaucratic obstacles or corruption can add to a family’s legal and administrative burdens. Although declaring a missing relative dead might help a family obtain a clear legal status for the victim and thus enable the family to claim benefits or social relief to help overcome its economic difficulties, many refuse this option when there is no hard evidence of the death, feeling that it would be giving up on their loved ones.

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Justice and public acknowledgement

Families may need those who caused their loved ones to disappear to be held accountable. Court proceedings or transitional justice mechanisms can help families gain legal recognition. As well as justice, families want the dignity of properly honouring a missing person’s memory, which they should be granted by the authorities and the community. Families must be consulted about appropriate commemorations or symbolic rituals such as funeral rites, and they should be free to conduct these. They should also have a formal way of receiving condolences. Different cultures have different practices or religious convictions that must be taken into account. Some communities object to exhumations and reburials, feeling that these actions disturb the departed in the afterlife. Others prefer reburial, believing the dead should be laid to rest in a precise location in order to find peace.

Family associations

Though they are united by the same desire to know the fate and whereabouts of their missing relatives, families can often feel alone in their situations, not realizing how many others are also searching, also living with uncertainty. In some contexts, families whose loved ones have gone missing or become separated in similar circumstances have come together, forming family associations to share experiences and learn from each other about their rights and how to participate in the search process, be part of identification mechanisms and advocate for a better response to their needs. As a trusted focal point for families to offer each other solidarity and mutual support, these associations can serve as trusted intermediaries between families and other actors, and can support information exchange in both directions. In contexts where such associations do not exist, other groups, including civil society, migrants’ associations, religious organizations and other networks may be best placed to provide solidarity, support and advocacy for families.

Restoring Family Links

Coordinated by the Central Tracing Agency, Restoring Family Links (RFL) describes a broad range of activities conducted by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to prevent family separation, restore and maintain contact between family members, and clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people. RFL activities include enabling the exchange of family news; tracing missing family members; identifying, registering and following up unaccompanied and vulnerable children, and others, who have become separated from their families; and arranging family reunification. Family members of those who go missing are key to guiding actions relating to the disappearance. They are at the forefront of the search and play a crucial role in collecting and providing critical information to drive it. They are also best placed to advise about their own needs. For this reason, RFL emphasizes the importance of family members’ participation and inclusion in the entire process of seeking solutions and improvements in the system to deal with the problem of missing persons.