International Day of the Disappeared: Indifference to a Humanitarian Tragedy

International Day of the Disappeared: Indifference to a Humanitarian Tragedy

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer, has called on governments to urgently address the humanitarian issue of missing people: those who disappeared during armed conflict or other situations of violence, natural disasters or migration.

Speaking ahead of the International Day of the Disappeared on 30 August, Mr Maurer said that concerted efforts were needed to ascertain and document the fate of people who had gone missing and to provide families left behind with answers and effective support.

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Drawn Together: The Plight of the Missing

Drawn Together: The Plight of the Missing

For a few hours there will be news stories about the 'missing'. Tragic stories, testimony from different parts of the world. Then the dust will settle, the tears will dry and the world will carry on. Just like every year.

But for thousands and thousands of families who have lost someone, the tears will not dry and they will not just carry on. They will try to continue living with the pain, of the searing uncertainty, of not knowing what happened to their loved ones.

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The Missing: Bringing Clarity and Comfort amid the Anguish

Disappearances are a reality, whether linked to war, migration or disasters.

They happen for different reasons, but the suffering of the families is the same. So is the need for documentation to provide answers to the agonizing uncertainty – even though finding answers might take a very long time and for some families, there will never be a definitive answer.

There are a host of practical issues which families face. They may be left without a breadwinner, while having to spend their dwindling resources on the search. They may need to confront legal and administrative hurdles. Many also need emotional support as they face feelings of isolation, sadness and marginalization.

On International Day of the Disappeared, we highlight:

The right to know: The struggle families face to receive credible information on the fate of missing loved ones:

Story from Sri Lanka  | Story from Syria

Economic security: The need for financial support as families try to find new ways of making a living, amid the limbo of dealing with the disappearance of a relative:

Story from Armenia

Legal and administrative: The need for help to confront the bureaucratic obstacles that arise when a family member is missing but not acknowledged as dead.

Story from Mexico

Psychosocial: The need for emotional support as families face the anguish of ambiguous loss and try to pursue their lives, in the absence of any answers.

Story from Uganda  | Story from Azerbaijan

Commemoration: The way families can remember missing loved ones and pay tribute to their memory.

Story from Peru

The ICRC provides long term support in order to overcome these difficulties and help families regain control of their lives. We also seek to persuade governments and other actors to put the issue of the missing on their agenda and do more to help meet their needs. Click here for more information on the ICRC's work.

Addressing the needs of families of the missing

In this video, we meet three people from different corners of the globe, each with a unique story about someone close who has gone missing – a man in Uganda searching for his son, and a woman in Mexico and a woman in Georgia, both looking for their brothers.

Trace the face: People looking for missing migrants in Europe

Red Cross and Red Crescent societies across Europe are publishing photos of people looking for their missing relatives, online and in posters, in the hope of reconnecting families.

Are you looking for a missing family member or loved one? If you are in the United States, please visit Otherwise, please visit the ICRC’s Restoring Family Links website.

Uganda: Helping Families of the Missing to Find Renewed Purpose and Meaning

Mike Atube, a field officer with the Families of the Missing programme, leads a group session. CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / Monica Mukerjee

Mike Atube, a field officer with the Families of the Missing programme, leads a group session. CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / Monica Mukerjee

Between 1986 and 2006, some 75,000 people were abducted in northern Uganda.

The fate of several thousand remains unknown. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates that as many as 10,000 may still be missing. Their families live in uncertainty, unable to truly mourn, hoping they may return.

An ICRC program has been helping these families cope with their pain and move forward. Monica Mukerjee, an ICRC Mental Health Delegate in Uganda, explains more about the program.

How have people in these communities been psychologically and psychosocially affected by the disappearance of their loved ones?

Although their relatives disappeared years or decades ago, the pain is still very much present for some families. They feel their lives are "on hold." They cannot make important life decisions. They may be unable to work. They feel paralyzed.

Emotionally, families talk about having cwer cwiny, an Acholi (tribe in Northern Uganda) idiom describing how their heart bleeds out of sadness for their missing loved one. Some have par, a sickness of thoughts, from constantly thinking of the relative who disappeared. Others have unexplained physical pains and sleeping problems, linked to psychological distress. They may even feel haunted by spirits of their missing loved ones — as without a body, they are unable to properly perform funeral rites that would give peace to the departed soul of their relative.

To cope with such problems, some adopt habits or fall into states of mind that can have negative effects on their health and social life, such as alcoholism, reclusiveness, bitterness and irritability.

These consequences are often worsened by other difficulties. Elderly parents with missing children suffer enormous financial hardships because they have no one to care for them when they are too old to work. Disputes in families over land appear when the owner disappears. Families may even face stigmatization because the community suspects them of having been close to, or associated with armed groups.

All of these issues aggravate the pain families of the missing feel.

How does the ICRC provide emotional support?

The ICRC program in Northern Uganda is one of the first to provide psychosocial support to families with missing relatives in Africa. We use a similar framework globally called "accompaniment" to provide support to families of the missing, which aims to support these families by "walking alongside them" to help shoulder their pain and struggles.

Through this approach, we identify, train and coach local community members to be "accompaniers" who facilitate support groups with families of the missing. In these groups, members open up and discuss the challenges that stem from their relative's disappearance.

Accompaniers also visit families at their homes to give individual support as needed and help with practical issues by connecting participants to additional help and services, such as health centers, local organizations or community elders.

A group session of families of missing persons, led by an ICRC "accompanier". CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / Monica Mukerjee

A group session of families of missing persons, led by an ICRC "accompanier". CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / Monica Mukerjee

How has the ICRC been able to adapt its approach to the cultural context?

In Northern Uganda, we select and train accompaniers who are from the same communities as the families of the missing. Our accompaniers are well-versed in Acholi culture and conduct their sessions entirely in Luo, the language spoken in Northern Uganda.

They create a space where members come together and support one another, which may include sharing Acholi rituals and practices.

For instance, many families struggle with how they can preserve the memory of their loved ones in their daily lives. In some groups, members have begun to use a mwoc of their loved ones. Mwoc are proverbs specific to each person that are repeated in happy and difficult times, and help families remember their relatives while giving them strength to deal with their everyday challenges.

How important is it to integrate psychosocial support with other elements of the response?

It is vital. Psychosocial support becomes powerful when it is anchored to ways of addressing practical issues.

In addition to giving emotional support, accompaniers actively help families resolve practical concerns they may have neglected due to their situations of stress, such as legal disputes or untreated medical issues.

What is the most important way in which people can help families of the missing to move forward with their lives?

Giving families a space to share feelings without judgment is an important starting point. It enables families to connect with others again, and through those relationships, they find renewed purpose and meaning in their lives.

For more stories from the International Committee of the Red Cross, please visit

This Week in Restoring Family Links News 8/23/2014-8/29/2014

Do you follow @intlfamilylinks (Restoring Family Links’ account) on Twitter? See an interesting article but just don’t have the time to read it? “This Week in RFL News” is a weekly blog segment that highlights and summarizes some of the news items posted by RFL’s twitter.

International Day of the Disappeared: It’s rare that I only cover one news item that was shared on social media during the week, but this is an extraordinarily important topic! International Day of the Disappeared is recognized every year on August 30th. It is a day set aside to draw attention to those who have gone missing because of conflict, disaster, and migration; and the work of organizations around the world to learn their fate and support families of the missing. Its impetus came the work of Latin American organizations actively working against enforced disappearances in the region, but has grown to honor those who have gone missing around the globe, from conflicts in the Western Balkans to disasters in the Philippines.

Many organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), now work on issues of the missing. International humanitarian law dictates that states are obliged to clarify the fate or whereabouts of people who have gone missing. The ICRC supports this work in many places around globe, from Colombia, to the former Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka.

Due to the unique circumstances in which people go missing, their work varies from place to place. In Colombia, the ICRC works to trace those who have gone missing as well as improve national systems for identifying remains found in anonymous gravesites. In Bosnia, they have helped advocate for legal mechanisms to honor families of the missing. Regardless of their level of involvement in uncovering the fate of the disappeared themselves, the ICRC works to support and advocate on behalf of families of the missing.

Other Red Cross Red Crescent societies also work on issues of the missing through the Restoring Family Links program. The Canadian Red Cross often works with its refugee population to search for loved ones who went missing while fleeing conflict in their home nation. The American Red Cross and its partner organizations work with families of missing migrants to determine the fate of those who have disappeared within the US-Mexico borderlands.

Outside of the Red Cross Movement, many other organizations and family associations advocate on behalf of the missing. In Turkmenistan, families continue to pressure their government to release information concerning the fate of people disappeared over ten years ago. Similarly in Kashmir, protests have been organized around the International Day of the Disappeared to learn the fate of those who have gone missing in relation to conflict in the region.

And the stories shared here are just a drop in the bucket. For this year’s day of recognition, please take the time to learn more about issues of the missing and the incredible work being done to support families who continue to suffer from not knowing the fate of their loves ones.

More resources:

Amnesty International’s work against enforced disappearance

International Commission on Missing Persons work with governments on issues of the missing

Read about all of ICRC’s work on missing persons