Gone but not forgotten: Migrants, mothers and the missing

19 September 2017

On 30 August 2017, on the International Day of the Disappeared, the ICRC convened a discussion at the Humanitarium to commemorate the hundreds of thousands of people missing in the world today. We heard from Estela Barnes de Carlotto, whose activism after her daughter disappeared was a catalyst for the international community to sit up and notice the plight of the missing. The event is part of the ICRC Conference Cycle on Generating respect for the law, which aims at addressing the importance of international humanitarian law (IHL) and prevention efforts.


  • Mary Werntz, Deputy Director of Operations, ICRC


  • Vincent Bernard, Head of ICRC Law and Policy Forum and Editor-in-Chief of the International Review of the Red Cross


  • Estela Carlotto - President of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo
  • José Pablo Baraybar do Carmo - Forensic Coordinator, ICRC
  • Carla Uriarte –Psychologist and mental health and psychosocial advisor, ICRC

Panel discussion

Mary Werntz, the ICRC's deputy head of operations, introduced the event, reminding the audience of the human impact these disappearances have. She noted the important contribution the family associations of South America made in leading the struggle against forgetfulness, and forcing States as well as the international community to pay more attention.

The event is held on the 40th years since the first march on the Plaza de Mayo, a weekly vigil by the mothers of Argentina's "disappeared". Mary emphasised how the problem of the missing is still an urgent one, as there are many complex contexts in which there is a responsibility to clarify the fate of the missing.

The event moderator, Vincent Bernard, introduced the speakers and the main themes of the day: looking back to the origins of this commemorative day but also acknowledging the enduring similarities of the painful situations families find themselves in.

Estella Barnes de Carlotto spoke about her personal story, of losing her daughter and her tireless work to discover her fate and that of others in the same situation. She emphasised the complexity of the relationship between her public activism and her private pain: "It was then that we learned, for the first time, the new meaning of the word disappeared".

Estela spoke of the administrative and bureaucratic hurdles, as well as the emotional journey she has been on. Working on the national and international stage, she described her struggle to ensure the disappeared were not forgotten and their rights – and the rights of their families – were respected.

The fight to remember a disappeared person's identity was a theme picked up by ICRC forensic coordinator Jose Pablo Baraybar.

"Today we are here to remember all of those whose names did not make the headlines", Jose Pablo opened his contemporary intervention reminding us that some lives are more "grieve-able" than others. He also describes the posthumous rights of the dead to be remembered and to have a solid identity, invoking the scale of the current migration crisis as a painful example.

Finally, ICRC mental health and psychosocial advisor Carla Uriarte shifted the focus from the public dimension of remembrance to the private pain of the families from a psychological perspective.

"Today is a day for remembrance, and mothers and the families remember until the day they die and it can overshadow all other aspects". This ambiguous loss is a complicated and lonely process and Carla explored the many different psychosocial elements this may take. She presented some interventions which can be offered to help relieve this pain, for instance training professionals who interact with the families of the missing (for instance forensic specialists) and creation of support systems, as well as normalising the feeling around ambiguous loss by explaining the concept.

She then showed an excerpt of the film of mothers in Armenia and Azerbaijan whose children had disappeared and how ICRC support groups helped them heal.

Estela Carlotto concluded with final words on how her struggle – and the struggle of families like hers – was motivated by love. As Estela put it, "clinging stubbornly to love have borne fruit". Despite fearing for her life, after 36 years she found her grandson, who had been born after her daughter had been disappeared.