“Every day, people go missing amidst conflict and violence, or on the paths of exile, displacement or migration. Meanwhile, those whose loved ones went missing in the past continue to live with their pain, unable to heal. Long after the wars or disasters are over, the wounded have been cared for and the new have been homes built upon the ruins of the old ones, the suffering of people whose loved ones are missing lingers on, the last open wound.

Where is my child? Is he a prisoner? Did she suffer when they killed her? Will she ever come back? Where are they buried? For those in the dark about what happened to a loved one, the hope that they will return, a sign of life or even a scrap of information can become an obsession – suffering that is both acute and haunting.

If answers never come, loved ones will carry the burden of their questions and grief throughout their lives and to their graves, often consoled only by the unshakeable faith that they will then be reunited with their son, daughter, parent or spouse.

The suffering of those who do not know what happened to their loved ones remains one of the least visible humanitarian problems. Worse, these families’ needs are often ignored, exploited or even swept under the rug for political ends: whether the fate of the missing will be resolved is determined by those acting in the name of the “greater good” for reconciliation, or its opposite, becoming a pretext to fuel a climate of fear and revenge. Cases of missing persons may be denied to cover up a crime; they may also trigger, become the crux of, or perpetuate a conflict.

For centuries, the tragic fate of the missing and their families was considered inevitable. The remains of the victims of wars or disasters were rarely identified and returned to their families, whether out of vengeance, indifference or simply lack of means to do so.

Since the nineteenth century and the development of international humanitarian action, humanitarian organizations have been continually coming up with new solutions. In recent years, greater awareness of the scale of the problem, thanks to the efforts of the families, coupled with advances in forensic science, genetics, facial recognition, and means of communication and transport, have led to great strides forward. These advances could prevent people going missing in the first place or bring answers for the families of the missing.

In many contexts, however, the political will to devote the necessary means to prevent people from going missing, search for the missing and identify remains to help find answers is still lacking. And even when the political will is there, authorities too often do not know what measures to take to collect and share information about missing persons. Similarly, the authorities may not know how to address the families’ precarious circumstances and legal and administrative limbo.

The International Review of the Red Cross’s latest issue focused on ‘The Missing’ takes stock of recent advances in the humanitarian sector with the aim of promoting best practices and mobilizing action to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing persons and respond to the needs of their families.

Vincent Bernard, Editor-in-Chief, International Review of the Red Cross

This blog piece is a much abridged version of Vincent Bernard’s Editorial published in International Review of the Red Cross, Volume 99, Issue 905: The Missing.

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