Migration and the Missing: The Red Cross alleviates human suffering on the Day of the Disappeared

Story by Robbie Conrad, Texas Gulf Coast Region, Regional Coordinator for International Services and Service to the Armed Forces

While television and internet display images of events, nothing can compare to witnessing a pivotal moment first-hand. On a recent trip to South Texas for the American Red Cross’ Restoring Family Links (RFL) program, I was struck by an unforgettable image as we visited a fellow non-profit’s shelter for migrants.

Outside of a shelter in the sweltering heat, fifteen individuals disembarked from a bus. Ten of those people were children; each no more than ten years old. As they slowly walked toward the building, every volunteer on the premises stopped what they were doing. And they clapped. And they smiled. The fear those children initially presented morphed into what could only be described as relief.

“We greet them this way to celebrate that they made it, through the long journey,” a volunteer later remarked to me. They certainly were not the only ones. They were, however, among the lucky ones.

By the time I had visited South Texas in early August 2014, more than 60,000 unaccompanied minors, along with an additional 60,000 families, had set out for the United States in less than a year from a number of Central American nations. That figure is staggering. They travel for a variety of reasons; some escaping record numbers of violence and criminal activity, others seeking better economic opportunities for themselves and their families. In spite of their differences for traveling, they share a common challenge: traveling the long, dangerous journey across Mexico to reach the United States.

The statistics coming out of Mexico paint a bleak picture for the migrants. One-third of the females are sexually assaulted during the course of making the journey, while a majority of the individuals face the constant threat of physical violence. All of these threats are coupled with a harsh climate and poor access to food and water while traveling. Furthermore, both the children and adults run the serious risk of becoming victims of human trafficking. They, in essence, can effectively disappear if they fall prey to a trafficker or become the victim of violence.

Father and son take part in a photo campaign to draw attention to the disappeared and the plight of the missing's families.

Father and son take part in a photo campaign to draw attention to the disappeared and the plight of the missing's families.

Marking its 31st anniversary on August 30th, the International Day of the Disappeared is held in honor of those who have gone missing across the globe. The individuals commemorated on this day have vanished for a variety of reasons, ranging from becoming political prisoners held by hostile governments to falling victim to international criminal activity. The American Red Cross, through its Restoring Family Links program, honors those victims both on this day and throughout the year, and is playing an increasingly significant role in dealing with tracing cases related to missing individuals.

Within the past five months, the Texas Gulf Coast Region has handled two cases involving missing migrants. The work is unlike the average tracing case. Whereas most cases we typically receive involve working from a client’s last known whereabouts, cases regarding missing individuals involve piecing together a variety of leads from a number of sources, something akin to law-enforcement work.

Searching for these individuals includes using non-traditional resources like the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) which compiles all state medical examiner reports involving unclaimed remains and unidentified bodies. While the information on each of the NamUS cases can be vague, such as providing an approximate time of death of an individual, it prove to be a pivotal piece of the puzzle for finding missing persons.

Our last case in the Greater Houston Area involved a female migrant from Mexico, traveling to the United States to join her husband who had already established residency here. After crossing the US-Mexico border into Texas, she became ill and the group left her behind. A number of witness accounts provided disputing stories and, naturally, all had to be followed to their conclusion during the casework.

One of the NamUS database’s medical examiner records on a female’s unidentified remains provided a promising lead, matching a narrative provided by witnesses. However, to determine if the remains belong to the individual being sought, it involves acquiring DNA samples from the family abroad and must then be passed along from law-enforcement officials there through the consular chain, and ultimately to United States authorities who can then perform the genetic testing. It is time-consuming, detailed work and definitely beyond the norm for a RFL case.

"Mystery of the Missing Migrant" copy by  Charlie Harper prints

"Mystery of the Missing Migrant" copy by Charlie Harper prints

While the American Red Cross is now increasingly engaged in working to determine the whereabouts of those that have gone missing, other agencies and organizations are actively engaged in preventing disappearances and deaths from occurring. One such organization is the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, Texas, led by the selfless and dedicated Eduardo Canales. His organization, through community-based initiatives, actively aims to prevent migrants from vanishing during their treacherous journeys.

One such initiative is a project designed to prevent migrant deaths resulting from the intensely arid Texas environment. As approximately 300 migrants were believed to have died while crossing the US-Mexico border during 2012, the work is important. To accomplish this goal, Mr. Canales has worked extensively in the region to create watering stations that will provide much needed relief to migrants during their journey through the area. While this may sound like a simple project on paper, the amount of work involved is extraordinary and personally inspiring.

While the International Day of the Disappeared may be commemorated only one day a year, the American Red Cross and its partners work year-round with the disappeared in mind. Moments like seeing those unaccompanied children step through that hallway of volunteer applause reaffirmed for me that providing these individuals with a phone call home to a parent is everything and its value is inestimable. It is something that we may, as Americans, take for granted as our access to a phone line or the internet is usually within easy reach. However, for the parents waiting at home in Central America for that one phone call from their child, it is everything, and helps to alleviate that anguish and uncertainty. Other parents or family members may unfortunately have to wait or go without that phone call forever; however, they can rest assured that there are those out there working to reconnect them or provide them with much-needed closure.