Every day, people go missing amidst conflict and violence, disaster, or as a result of exile, displacement or migration. Hundreds of thousands of people are currently missing around the world. In case people die during these circumstances their bodies are not always handled respectfully and with dignity; and unknown deceased individuals remain unidentified, thus increasing the number of missing persons.
The phenomenon is widespread and touches all corners of the globe and means great anguish and mounting anxiety for their families, left in limbo over their loved one`s fate.
Not knowing if their relative is dead or alive, families search and wait, often for many years, unable to find the closure of mourning. The emotional and psychological suffering can be severe. As if their pain were not enough, family members of the missing are often plunged into economic and social hardship. Disappearances and unproper handling of the dead have a long-term impact on not only the lives of families, but also on communities and societies, sometimes for decades.
A missing person is one whose whereabouts are unknown to his/her relatives and/or who, on the basis of reliable information, has been reported missing in accordance with national legislation in connection with an armed conflict, other situations of violence, a natural disaster or any other situation that may require the intervention of a competent State authority. This definition goes beyond the concept of “enforced disappearance”, as adopted by the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (2006) and the Rome Statute (1998). Whereas those instruments limit the definition to people who have gone missing following an arrest or detention by the State or State agents, the term – missing persons – includes more broadly all individuals who go missing, regardless of the reasons or circumstances of disappearance.
The circumstances in which disappearances occur vary greatly. For instance, armed conflicts can cause mass displacements, which frequently result in many internally displaced people, refugees or migrants going missing, because they are afraid of contacting their families, because they lack means of communication or because all family members have left home, so there is no chance of reconnecting, or if two parts of a family are both on the move and lose the reference point to find each other again. Isolated populations and people living under occupation may not be able to send news to their next-of-kin. This can lead to the long-term separation of families.
Often, families do not know the whereabouts of relatives in armed forces or armed groups because they are given no means of staying in touch. Members of armed forces or armed groups may go missing in action because they have not been issued with any means of identifying themselves, such as identity discs.
Victims whose bodies are abandoned, buried in haste or destroyed before identification and without any information being given to their families may also be reported missing. So may people who are captured, arrested or abducted and held incommunicado or in a secret location. In many cases, their families either do not know where they are or are not allowed to visit them – or even to correspond with them. Data on people deprived of their freedom – such as date and place of arrest, transfer, death or burial – is frequently not recorded. When it is, the records are often withheld or destroyed.
It is not unusual to find children on their own, having been separated from their families either while fleeing fighting, or because they were forcibly recruited, incarcerated or even hastily adopted. The elderly or persons with disabilities may be unable to flee and can be left behind; women and children who migrate can also be more vulnerable to disappearance.
Evidence confirming death is not always preserved and handled appropriately during exhumations and post-mortem procedures.
Five circumstances in which an individual may go missing (armed conflict, enforced disappearance, migration, other situations of violence and natural disasters) are explored below.
In almost every situation of armed conflict or other situation of violence, inherent dangers lead to separation and disappearances of soldiers and civilians alike. Within the context of international and non-international armed conflicts, violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) and of human rights account for most cases of missing persons. Fundamental rules of IHL and human rights exist to help prevent people from going missing in situations of armed conflict or other violence. To respect those rules is to respect the integrity and dignity of all human beings, including the deceased, and, in the context of missing persons, it erects a barrier against disappearance and helps resolve cases of disappearance when they do, unfortunately, occur.
Every year, millions of people embark on perilous journeys of migration across national borders and even continents, often outside established migratory routes. Many of them disappear along the way or in countries of destination. The ICRC has adopted a broad description of migrants, to encompass all people who leave or flee their home to seek safety or better prospects abroad and who may be in distress and need of protection or humanitarian assistance. Refugees and asylum seekers, who are entitled to specific protection under international law, are included in this description.
Disappearances are a daily and chronic phenomenon in some contexts affected by situations of violence other than armed conflict. People are going missing every day at the hands of gangs, authorities and other groups, or as a result of collusion between those involved in the violence. Disappearance may be a tactic used as retaliation, to instil fear in individuals and communities, to eliminate or intimidate witnesses of criminal activity, or in armed conflict. In situations of violence that falls below the threshold of armed conflict, people also go missing in ways unrelated to violations of the law, such as when they die and their remains are not found or properly identified.
When disaster strikes, the need to know where and how relatives are – if they have survived, if they need help – is a priority. Different needs may arise following a natural disaster: the disruption of communications may prevent people from contacting their relatives within or outside the affected area. People may have to leave or be evacuated from the affected areas and accommodated in shelters, where they may find it difficult to let their families know where and how they are. People who have been injured in the disaster may be transferred to hospitals, possibly out of the affected area, without their families knowing. Natural disasters can also cause many deaths. The deceased may be transferred to morgues or buried, without their relatives even knowing that they have died. Particular needs may exist in relation to the collection and management of information on the dead and their identification.
The 2006 International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED), the first universal treaty on that subject, uses the term “disappeared person”, which covers only disappearances due to arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the state or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the state, followed by a refusal of the state to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.