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Western Balkans: Authorities must support families of missing persons

22-08-2013 Interview

Two decades after the Balkan conflicts, almost 12,000 people are still missing. Lina Milner is the ICRC’s regional coordinator for the missing persons issue in the Western Balkans. On the occasion of the International Day of the Disappeared, she talks about what the ICRC is doing to help the families of those who went missing and calls on the authorities to act rapidly to give them the answers they need.

How many people are still missing?

In the 22 years since the Balkan conflicts started, almost 35,000 people have been reported to the ICRC as missing. The fate and whereabouts of some 23,000 people are now known, but the families of over 11,800 people are still waiting for answers. Most of those cases relate to the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, with over 7,800 still unaccounted for. For Croatia and Kosovo, the figures are approximately 2,200 and 1,700 people respectively.

What is being done to address the issue of missing persons in the Western Balkans?

Over the years, a number of measures have been taken, such as:

  • the collection and processing of tracing requests;
  • the consolidation of missing persons lists in public books of missing persons;
  • appeals to people to report the disappearance of relatives;
  • the setting up of mechanisms that enable the authorities to honour the families’ right to know what has happened to their relatives;
  • supporting the establishment of family associations;
  • obtaining the support of the international community.

The ICRC regularly reminds the authorities that they bear the principal responsibility for providing the families with answers. We also raise awareness of challenges and possible solutions.

Is the ICRC satisfied with current progress?

No.

In the last 12 months, only 800 cases have been resolved in the entire region, almost exclusively through exhumations at known gravesites. The authorities do acknowledge the importance of the issue and they have committed themselves to helping the families. But progress is far too slow. They must do much more to eliminate obstacles and to ensure that the families’ right to know what happened to their relatives is respected.

What obstacles are preventing progress on the issue of missing persons?

The main obstacle is that we don’t know what happened to the people who are still missing. In particular, we don’t know where the dead are buried. There must be more gravesites, in addition to the ones that have already been discovered. The authorities in each context must find out where these gravesites are, and they must share this information. They need to be looking through their archives, and asking the intelligence services, ministries, the armed forces, the judiciary, etc. They should also be consulting former commanders who were in charge of specific areas when people disappeared.

And then there are the legal and forensic obstacles. In Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo in particular, the authorities are lagging behind in the implementation of existing laws on missing persons and their families. They also have limited capacity to recover, analyse, and identify human remains, including unidentified sets of remains still lying in morgues. The authorities need to implement existing legislation, develop the necessary forensic capacity, allocate the necessary resources and formulate a comprehensive strategy for dealing with unidentified remains.

How do families cope with the fact that a family member is missing? What is the ICRC doing to help them?

Thousands of families living in the region and elsewhere face the anguish of not knowing what has happened to a missing relative. Behind each and every missing person there is a family. These families have to deal not only with years of uncertainty but also with the loss of the family breadwinner and with isolation, stigmatization and other psychosocial and administrative problems.

What helps them deal with the situation is hope, the hope that they will receive an answer. The ICRC and its Red Cross partners have been supporting them. Everything we do, we do for the families, with the aim of ensuring respect for their right to know.

On the International Day of the Disappeared, we call upon the authorities of the region to give these families their unreserved and unconditional support, and to take rapid, concrete steps to end their pain.


Photos

Lina Milner 

Lina Milner
© ICRC

The families of missing persons strive to make their voices heard. Every year they mark the International Day of the Disappeared, 30 August, by remembering their missing relatives and reminding the authorities to fulfil their responsibilities. 

The families of missing persons strive to make their voices heard. Every year they mark the International Day of the Disappeared, 30 August, by remembering their missing relatives and reminding the authorities to fulfil their responsibilities.
© ICRC

A banner bears the names and photos of people from Mitrovica who are still missing. 

Pristina, Kosovo, International Day of the Disappeared 2012.
A banner bears the names and photos of people from Mitrovica who are still missing.
© ICRC

Photo exhibition about the families of missing persons. 

Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Photo exhibition about the families of missing persons.
© ICRC