From 21 to-23 November 2023, approximately 700 families of missing persons from all over the world came together to share their experiences and gain inspiration.
The world over, the common characteristic shared by families of the missing is the determination. Regardless of the number of years that have passed, the varying circumstances of their loved ones’ disappearances, or the different economic, emotional, legal, or administrative challenges they face, families worldwide are unified by the same pain and unwavering commitment to find their loved ones.
The International Conference for Families of Missing Persons recognizes the power of this solidarity and the importance of coming together. This bi-annual conference which recently took place over three days in multiple locations, provided families with a unique opportunity to connect and share their experiences. Sri Lankan families, for instance, described this conference as a source of “unity, strength, power and solidarity”.
Twice in the course of the conference’s 72-hour span, families across the world were able to come together for a 'golden hour’ – a moment in the schedule during which the sun had risen or not yet set for most participants – This moment, at the heart of the conference allowed families from over 40 different countries, spanning from Nepal to El Salvador, to feel united as part of a global network that recognizes their struggles and provides understanding and support.
Families gathered at the ICRC delegation in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, could hear those in Caracas, Venezuela saying, “the network becomes your family …and together we are stronger”. Similarly, families in Lima, Peru, reached out, calling all those attending “our sisters and brothers”. Far across the world, the Kenyan Red Cross in Nairobi brought together families who draw strength from the majestic lion, mirroring their resilience.
From San Salvador, a resounding chorus assures all who listen, “You are not alone”. And from Yola, Nigeria, the response resonates, “We are not alone in suffering and agonies, we cannot just hear but see other families”. Even if the video feed of the Syrian families in Lebanon had to be kept closed for security reasons, the impact of their voices was felt by those listening from Jordan or Yemen. Fathers singing for their missing sons evoked waves of emotion in all the physical and virtual spaces where families gathered, empowering all those taking part.
The golden hour, however, was just one moment in a dense conference program that aimed to create a feeling of global solidarity and facilitate peer-to-peer exchanges of experiences. Convened by the ICRC's Central Tracing Agency, the conference brought together families of the missing across borders and continents, to recognize them as the primary actors in the search for their loved ones, going beyond their role as victims or beneficiaries of our RFL services.
We are not alone in suffering and agonies; we cannot just hear but see other families.
Families engaged directly with their peers around the world, seeking advice on how to come together and be better heard by those responsible for providing answers and learning from each other as they provide both support and empowerment to sustain their search. In one of the sessions, families from West Africa connecting from Dakar and Abidjan engaged with families in Caracas and El Salvador. This created a space where families of those who went missing on the route to Europe that involves the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean could access the experience of Central and South Americans who had lost loved ones traveling north towards the United States. The American experience, whilst still largely failing to provide answers for families, offered valuable lessons for those from West Africa at the conference.
It was also evident that in many contexts, families faced the same challenges and were using the same tools to address them. Just as the internet enabled the conference, new technologies such as social media also supported families to maintain contact with each other and even serve as tools that could advance their search for the missing. In the many contexts where people had been missing for decades, activism had to become transgenerational, mobilizing youth to continue the struggles initiated by their parents and grandparents.
The conference served as a platform for families to foster new relationships and meaningful connections. By interacting with other families, they learned from their experiences and gained valuable insights that will greatly enhance their search efforts. Looking ahead, the biannual conference will make a comeback, placing families at the helm to shape its structure and curate session topics. It will persist in its mission to empower families of the missing, facilitating the growth of a global movement that amplifies advocacy for the missing and extends unwavering encouragement to families in their search.