The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is calling for a better and broader response to the needs of the families of persons missing as the result of armed conflict or natural disaster.
“Every year, hundreds of thousands of people are separated from loved ones in such situations,” said Marianne Pecassou, the head of the ICRC team dealing with the missing. “The families will tell you that what they need more than anything else is to find out what happened to the person who vanished – unfortunately, in too many cases, that question may never be resolved. But they also have other needs that go far beyond this.”
Sometimes the needs stem from legal issues relating to the unresolved status of the missing person. These issues can involve such matters as inheritance, property, marital status or even the custody of children. There can also be financial needs caused by the costs involved in searching for the missing relative or in supporting the family if the person who disappeared was a main breadwinner.
However, as Milena Osorio, the ICRC’s mental health and psychosocial support adviser explains, there are often huge psychological needs as well. These can involve emotional isolation, feelings of guilt, anger, depression or trauma, and tensions among family members or with members of their communities. “The families of missing people frequently find themselves grappling with uncertainty. Most societies have religious or cultural rituals to deal with death,” said Ms Osorio, “but there is very little to help the families of missing persons.”
“Families have the right to know what happened to missing relatives. To find that out is their primary need, but further needs must also be addressed by governments and by organizations such as Red Cross or Red Crescent societies,” said Ms Pecassou.
On 30 August, the International Day of the Disappeared, the ICRC will unveil a publication entitled “Accompanying the Families of Missing Persons: A Practical Handbook,” which is intended to help those within and outside the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement who strive to assist the families of the missing. The 154-page manual is dedicated to “all those who have to endure the anguish caused by the disappearance of a loved one.”
The new publication complements the familylinks.icrc.org website launched last October by the ICRC to help people find missing relatives. The website also provides information on Red Cross and Red Crescent services that help people restore contact with family members in countries around the world.
“In the 10 years since the 2003 International Conference on Missing Persons and their Families, we have developed a much deeper understanding of the wide range of needs of these families,” noted Ms Pecassou. “We understand that our response to those needs, if it is to be adequate, must be holistic and multi-disciplinary. We are hopeful the new manual will provide guidance in that direction.”
In Armenia, the ICRC continues to provide the families of the missing with material assistance via micro-economic projects, such as the distribution of livestock or house renovations. Together with local partners, the ICRC also provides psycho-social support to the families, helping them to cope with the trauma of their loss.