The search process

The search for a person who has gone missing or become separated from their loved ones is a comprehensive, multifaceted process, involving a range of different actors and disciplines. Families are and must be at the centre of the process.

The search process consists of tracking and reconstructing, in retrospect, a person’s journey to determine with a degree of certainty or confidence their fate and whereabouts. “Fate” refers to the state or condition of the missing person, that is, whether they are alive or dead, while “whereabouts” relates to the person’s journey and the circumstances that led to their fate and location. It involves formulating a hypothesis – free of bias or presumptions – related to the person’s possible fate, the place in which they may be found, and the reconstruction of the events since they went missing.

Most families begin to search for their relative as soon as they become aware that they are missing. Various other actors can also be involved – including the authorities, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and civil society organisations – working either separately or in coordination.

The search can be quick or last years; most families will continue to search for their loved one until all avenues have been explored and until they receive credible information on the fate and whereabouts of the missing person. The aim of the search is, first and foremost, to locate the person being sought and know their fate and whereabouts. However, some actors involved in the search, including families, are interested in identifying the perpetrators, if the disappearance is related to a crime or a violation of human rights or international humanitarian law. Different contexts may require different solutions, and there is no single approach to fit every situation. It is useful, however, to analyse and deconstruct how a search is typically carried out in different circumstances and contexts, to provide actors with best practices and knowledge to inform their work. Even in the most difficult circumstances, families want to be reassured that every effort possible was made by the entities concerned to search for their missing relative. The resources available on this website are intended to inform and help organizations, authorities and families with various aspects of the search process.

Gathering Information and data

The preliminary phases of the search generally focus on collecting background information about the missing person and the events surrounding their disappearance. It is important to ensure that information about the person who has gone missing or become separated, and about the circumstances of how they became separated/disappeared, is recorded in sufficient detail precisely at the time when that person is reported to have become separated/gone missing, as important details may be forgotten with the passage of time.

The safety of the people providing the information, and of those that are the subject of that information, is of primary importance. While the information should be shared among the appropriate authorities, once provided, it should be protected, and no data should be used or published that may cause harm to individuals.

The first step in looking for a missing person is to submit a tracing request, and the initial tools to be used are missing persons data collection forms. These initial data to be collected should include all available information that will help in the search for the missing person and that is necessary to maintain contact with the enquirer.

Organizations and authorities carry out data collection according to their context, needs, resources and mandate, but missing persons data generally include the following types of information:

a) information relating to the identity of the person: 

  • general personal/social information (name, age, home address, place of work, marital status, etc.)
  • physical appearance (height, weight, eye colour, hair colour, etc.)
  • medical and dental history (fractures, diseases, missing teeth, dental crowns, fillings, etc.)
  • distinguishing features (habits, e.g. pipe smoking, unique characteristics, e.g. scars,birthmarks or tattoos)
  • clothes and other personal items the missing person was wearing or carrying when they were last seen
  • biological samples from the relatives of a missing person (and/or samples from the missing person acquired before their disappearance), which may also be collected for use in the identification process;

b)    information relating to the circumstances of the disappearance:

  • where was the person last seen, who else was there, what was the situation, what happened, etc.

Any individual who was in contact with the missing person is a potential source of vital information. For this reason, the search and identification processes must adhere to important multidisciplinary principles and standards, many of which are taken from the forensic sciences (e.g. medicine, pathology, anthropology, archaeology, fingerprint analysis, dentistry, genetics), and call on experts from different related disciplines (e.g. researchers, investigators, crime-scene experts).

Usually, family members will have undertaken a great deal of research on their own to uncover as much information as possible about the missing person, especially if several years have passed since their disappearance. While doing so, they sometimes come across information about other missing persons (not related to them), the location of burial sites, etc. It is important to record this information as well.

Once the data are collected, responsible authorities or organizations supporting the families in the search process will try to match the data collected as part of the tracing request with:

  • other data previously collected – such as lists of people who are safe and well, injured, deprived of their liberty or dead – and other tracing requests
  • information shared by official institutions and other organizations
  • other data published in the media or on the internet.

Collecting comprehensive data early is as important as preserving data for as long as necessary and protecting that data. The need to consult or re-activate a case may arise years, or even decades, after the end of an armed conflict or other violence. Archives are comprised of records and other documentary materials selected and preserved over time in order to attest to what was done in the past. Archives should contain authentic, reliable and complete information that constitutes an authoritative source of knowledge and learning. They should be organized according to specific regulatory frameworks derived from international and domestic law.

gathering data

Tracing Activities

“Tracing” means carrying out a search for a person in areas where this person might be located or where reliable information might be collected on his or her whereabouts. It is related to the very first hours, sometimes weeks, following the person becoming separated or going missing.

It can involve activities such as:

  • going to the last known address of the person being sought
  • contacting relatives and neighbours who might know the person being sought
  • consulting institutions or organizations that might have information on the person being sought
  • visiting shelters and camps where the person being sought might be
  • checking hospitals, mortuary and cemetery records, which might contain information on the person being sought
  • submitting the tracing request to the authorities to request information they may have (this should always be done with the informed consent of the enquirer and only when it is in the best interest of the person being sought)
  • publishing information on the person being sought (with the informed consent of the enquirer and only when it is believed to be in the best interest of the person being sought): details of the person being sought may be broadcast on the radio, internet or television, or published in newspapers, in order to reach those who might be able to provide information on or reconnect with a missing family member
  • placing posters in key locations with the name and/or picture of the person being sought and using mobile teams with megaphones to make announcements seeking information on the whereabouts of the person being sought
  • setting up a hotline/call centre – in a large-scale emergency, the ICRC or a National Society can do this to collect information, inform family members or refer them to appropriate sources of information.

The importance of coordination

Search activities may be carried out by a variety of actors, including government authorities, NGOs, international organizations, families and other civil society associations, depending on the circumstances and context in which a person goes missing. The effectiveness of the search process also depends on the extent to which these different actors exchange information and harmonize how they collect it so it can be easily shared. In addition, it depends on the degree to which families and communities are kept informed and consulted about the search process: its limitations, the chances of success and the probability of finding the missing persons alive or locating their remains through exhumation and forensic identification. Any direct participation by the families in the search process should be dealt with in a sensitive and culturally appropriate manner. Effective mechanisms must be established at various levels to enable coordination and avoid duplicating data-gathering and search efforts; otherwise, there is the risk of revictimizing families by contacting them multiple times to collect the same information. Actors should be aware of each other and, insofar as possible, coordinate efforts and ensure a proper orchestration of data.

The need to protect sensitive information

Personal information about a missing person, provided by their families, is often key to clarifying their fate and whereabouts. However, much of the information sought during the data collection process can be highly sensitive personal data. Data protection principles and, often, national and regional legal frameworks require that individuals who are providing data be given information on the intended use of these data prior to their collection.

It is important to remember that this valuable information may also be key to a family’s own safety and dignity. Therefore, collecting, storing and managing data appropriately should always be considered an integral part of protecting the families themselves as part of the search process.

Digitalization and other advances in data technologies have made the search for missing persons considerably more effective. The ICRC is already using a range of technologies to collect and process data. In 2015, it adopted a Restoring Family Links Code of Conduct on Data Protection in order to guarantee the right to privacy and the protection of personal data of individuals using these services.

Shalamjah border crossing, near Basra. The remains of 17 Iranian soldiers, killed during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, being repatriated under the auspices of the ICRC. FEGHALI, Marie-Claire, ICRC.

Laws and policies guiding the search process

The Guiding Principles / Model Law on the Missing is a document suggesting model legislative provisions to be used by States as guidance in the drafting of legislation on the protection of missing persons and on the prevention of this situation. The Guiding Principles for the Search for Disappeared Persons (Committee on Enforced Disappearances) identify mechanisms, procedures and methods for carrying out the legal duty to search for disappeared persons and seek to consolidate good practices in searching effectively for disappeared persons, arising from States’ obligation to search. Together with families, experts and other key stakeholders, the ICRC has developed a Core Dataset for the Search of Missing Migrants. This can be used to complement an organisation’s existing data collection efforts to ensure compatibility with others, or as the core content of a new form. As much of the information sought is highly sensitive personal data, the document includes guidance on data protection and a checklist with minimum elements for an information notice which can be adapted according to context.