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Missing persons: distressed relatives need more help

26-08-2011 News Release 11/172

Geneva (ICRC) – Relatives of people who disappeared in connection with armed conflict or other violence suffer immensely as they struggle to find out what became of those who went missing. The tremendous impact that disappearances have on the daily lives and long-term prospects of the families, and indeed of entire communities, is still largely overlooked. More needs to be done to meet the economic, psychological, social and legal needs of hundreds of thousands of families of missing persons, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said today in the run-up to the International Day of the Disappeared, which is observed on 30 August.

"Each person who goes missing leaves behind any number of distressed relatives. Not only do they live in limbo for years or even decades, which prevents them from finding closure, but very frequently they are also confronted with complex and intimidating administrative red tape," said Olivier Dubois, deputy head of the Central Tracing Agency and Protection Division of the ICRC. "Even if they suspect that a family member is dead, relatives may not be able to mourn properly. Without proof of death, family members are unable to move on, sell property, or simply conduct funeral rites."

People on all sides of a conflict are affected. Civilians, military personnel, or members of armed groups may be killed in fighting or made to disappear as part of an effort to spread fear in a community. In Colombia for example, there are close to 50,000 people listed on the country's National Registry of Disappeared People who have gone missing in recent decades. In the last few years, many clandestine graves have been discovered, leading to an ever-increasing list of unclaimed, unknown and unidentified dead, each of whom has a family left without answers.

"For the families, it's like going through a maze. They need to receive information that they can understand. They need support, and they need to be treated with respect," said Guilhem Ravier, an ICRC staff member working on the issue of missing persons in Colombia.

Providing support for the families of missing people is a priority for the ICRC, which strives to make sure that their needs are met. When the families request it to do so, the ICRC undertakes to collect information, often through a complex and lengthy process that can involve visiting places of detention, hospitals or morgues, and asking the authorities to investigate and provide answers. In several countries, this process involves the participation of National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies.
"There is rarely a quick resolution to these cases, but a strong political will and a high degree of accountability towards the families of missing persons can help speed up the process," said Mr Dubois. "States have an obligation under international humanitarian law to take all feasible measures to account for people who went missing, and to give families all the information they obtain. The ICRC is calling on States that have not yet done so to sign, ratify and implement the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance."

For further information, please contact:
Dorothea Krimitsas, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 22 730 25 90 or +41 79 251 93 18


To preview and download ICRC video footage in broadcast quality, go to:

(Latest footage from Colombia, where almost 50,000 people are missing)

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