ICRC: Missing persons must not be forgotten

In the run-up to the International Day of the Disappeared, 30 August, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is calling on the international community to show greater awareness of the tragedy of people who have gone missing and the plight of their families. Hundreds of thousands of people in all parts of the world have disappeared as a consequence of armed conflict, natural disasterormigration. Each person who vanishes leaves behind a large number of people –the family in particular –suffering the anguish of not knowing what happened.

“When people disappear, there are two kinds of victims: the individuals who have gone missing and their families, torn between despair and hope, living with uncertainty and pain, waiting for news, sometimes for decades,” explained Marianne Pecassou, who heads the activities carried out by the ICRC for missing persons and their families. Although what the families need more than anything else is to find out just what happened to their relatives, they also need an appropriate way to honour the memory of their missing loved ones. “They struggle against forgetting. Commemorative ceremonies offer them public acknowledgement of their suffering, give them a voice and bring them out of isolation,” said Ms Pecassou.

In some places, the numbers of people who have disappeared are staggering. In Colombia, for example, over68,000 peopleare still missing, out of more than 90,000 initially reported as such. In Sri Lanka, the fate and whereabouts of more than 16,000 people remain unknown.In Peru,between 13,000 and 16,000 people have vanished and their families are still waiting for news. And more than 11,000 people of a total of almost 35,000 reported to the ICRC who went missing in connection with the Balkan conflicts are still unaccounted for

“States have an obligation under international humanitarian law to take all feasible measures to clarify the fate and whereabouts of people who have gone missing and to inform their families accordingly,” said Christine Beerli, vice-president of the ICRC, at a commemorative event at ICRC headquarters attended by government representatives and members of the humanitarian and diplomatic communities of Geneva.

The plight of people who have disappeared– and the suffering of their families, all too often ignored – has been a constant concern of the ICRC. The organization is currently attempting to establish the fate and whereabouts of more than 52,000 people. “This figure is just the tip of the iceberg, since these cases are only the ones brought to the attention of the ICRC by relatives. We know that many more people remain unaccounted for around the world,” said Ms Pecassou. Besides working directly with the families of missing persons, the ICRC plays an important role in bringing the issue of the missing onto the public agenda. It urges the authorities to take action aimed at responding to the needs of the families and encourages the search for their missing loved ones.

To mark the International Day of the Disappeared, the ICRC is unveiling a new publication entitled “Living with Absence:Helping the Families of the Missing,” which highlights the ordeal of people unaccounted for, underlines the multiple needs of the families and describes the tailored responses the ICRC is providing. The content is enriched by personal narratives of relatives of missing persons.

In Armenia, there are more than 400 people registered as missing in relation to the Nagorny Karabakh conflict. Since the beginning of its humanitarian mission in the region in 1992, the ICRC has been working closely with the authorities towards clarifying the fate of those people and addressing the needs of their families.

In support to the authorities’ efforts to provide answers to the families about the fate of their loved ones, the ICRC has been implementing the detailed data collection programme. This includes the collection of biological reference samples from the families of the missing, which would increase the probability of the identification of human remains. The ICRC also promotes the adaptation of the national legal framework as related to the issue, working closely with respective state authorities.

The organisation works countrywide with the families of the missing offering them material assistance via house renovations and micro-economic projects to start up small businesses and obtain employable skills. Together with the Armenian Red Cross Society and other local partners, the ICRC also provides psycho-social support to the families, helping them to cope with the trauma of their loss and to resolve their health, legal and social issues.

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