Global Missing Persons Trends

Vito Manzari from Martina Franca (TA), Italy - Immigrati Lampedusa

ICMP’s Daily World News Digest  brings together news stories dealing with enforced disappearances and missing persons cases from around the world. It offers a snapshot of daily events and over a longer period it highlights key trends.

Migration and Missing Persons

In February, the number of migrants who are lost on the dangerous journey from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe was a major theme. On 9 February the BBC reported that at least 27 people died of hypothermia after being picked up near the Italian island of Lampedusa. They were part of a group of more than a hundred who were found adrift in an inflatable boat about 160 kilometres from Lampedusa. The rescue vessel did not have facilities to protect the migrants from the elements. This, and reports later in February, drew attention to the impact of the decision late last year to replace Italy’s “Mare Nostrum” naval exercise with the much smaller and geographically more limited European “Triton” deployment, which is primarily aimed at containment rather than rescue.

On 11 February, following a series of incidents in which as many as 300 migrants were believed to have drowned after setting off from Libya, the UNHCR issued a statement expressing shock at what it described as “a tragedy on an enormous scale” and insisted that “saving lives should be our top priority”. Amnesty International said EU member states should “hang their heads in shame” over the failure to provide an adequate replacement for Mare Nostrum; and the International Organization for Migration called for a robust global response to people smuggling. The UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and Migrants urged the EU to create “a meaningful refugee settlement program that will put human smugglers out of business.”

On 16 February there were more reports of thousands of migrants being picked up by the Italian coast guard, with Amnesty and the IOM again issuing statements calling for a much more credible response from the International Community.

Mexico’s Crisis

The case of the 43 students who were abducted and apparently murdered at the end of September continued to place enforced disappearances in Mexico at the top of the international news.

On 2 February the Mexican Human Rights Commission presented a report to the UN citing the absence of “a comprehensive national list of the missing” as a contributory factor in the country’s systemic missing persons crisis. On the same day, the Open Democracy web portal published an analysis pointing out that although the case of the missing students had garnered international attention, outrage over past human rights crises in Mexico has failed to make an impact on the tens of thousands of disappearances, many of which, it said, are likely to have been the result of state actions.

On 13 February the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances published a report concluding that the Mexican authorities are themselves involved in enforced disappearances and calling for a police and judicial probe into the authorities’ role.

Meanwhile, a sinister new pattern emerged, in which activists and family members searching for the missing themselves became targets of enforced disappearance. On 7 February the TeleSur TV network from Venezuela noted that in the last 18 months more than 150 people have been reported as missing in the small city of Piedras Negrasa in Mexico’s northern border state of Coahuila. According to a lawyer dealing with these cases, police may have been involved in at least 60 of the disappearances. On 10 February TeleSur reported that kidnappings have continued in the state of Guerrero, where the 43 students were abducted. It said armed men had murdered five people and kidnapped three more in one town on Sunday 8 February, and over the same weekend as many as 11 people had been seized in a town close to the one where the students were abducted. On 16 February TeleSur reported that a woman belonging to a group of activists searching for disappeared relatives was murdered on Friday in Iguala, where the students disappeared.

On 8 February the Wall Street Journal reported that the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, which was involved in trying to identify remains of the 43 students, had suggested that the Mexican authorities were trying to make the physical evidence fit the testimony of alleged participants in the killings. The Attorney General’s office denied this.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court Step In

The capacity or otherwise of judicial and non-judicial institutions to enforce due process and accountability on the ground was also a global theme in February. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Pakistan, where the Supreme Court has emerged as the leading advocate for families of missing persons, in the face of army, police and party institutions, among others, that have failed to abide by basic human rights standards.

On 7 February The Nation newspaper reported that the Court had agreed to a request by the Pakistan Human Rights Commission (HRC) that it review a case brought before it in 2007 involving 240 missing persons. The HRC argument was based on the fact that when the Court has summonsed witnesses in the past, they have appeared in court, which, of itself, has served to unblock stalled inquiries into missing persons cases.

The Express Tribune reported on 11 February that the Supreme Court has asked state and provincial authorities to launch “coordinated efforts for the recovery of missing persons” and to address the issue of unidentified bodies abandoned in different parts of the country. Human Rights Watch published an article on 12 February noting that Pakistan’s Supreme Court had “recognized the enormity of the country’s problem of enforced disappearances”. It added that since 2009 the authorities in Pakistan have recovered the bodies of 4,557 suspected victims of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial execution; 266 of these victims have still to be accounted for.

Courts Address Enforced Disappearances in South America

Elsewhere, judicial efforts to prosecute those responsible for enforced disappearances had mixed results.

The Latin America Tribune reported on 3 February that 78 former agents of the secret police in the Pinochet regime in Chile were sentenced for the abduction of Miguel Acana, who disappeared in 1974. The same report noted that 1,192 presumed victims of the Pinochet regime are still missing.

The Colombia Report web portal carried a story on 4 February saying that more than 2,500 cases of disappearance perpetrated by the FARC rebel group have been presented to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The Prensa Latina news agency reported on 8 February that the trial of 33 officials implicated in the murders and disappearances of 23 Italians in Latin America in the 1970s and 80s was scheduled to begin in Rome, though none of the accused was expected to appear in court; and the Buenos Aires Herald reported on 10 February that secret documents related to the 1977 disappearance of a Swedish citizens in Argentina had been published by the Foreign Ministry detailing dozens of exchanges between the Swedish government and the 1976-83 military junta. Radio France Internationale reported on 18 February that France’s top appeals court had ruled against extraditing a former Argentinian police officer, who also has French citizenship, wanted for alleged torture, kidnapping and murder during the period of military rule.

New Technologies

The use of technology in the effort to locate missing persons was also a popular theme in February.

BioScience Technology, an online journal, published an article on 6 February on next-generation sequencing (NGS), which can profile severely damaged DNA samples that contain 75 percent less base-pair information, compared to previous systems.

The Indian Express reported on 12 February that the Mumbai police have started using an online portal maintained by the railway police, which is designed to help families track down missing railway accident victims. Noting that 50 percent of deaths on Indian railways end up as unidentified bodies, Mumbai’s deputy police commissioner said that by using the railway police online portal, which was launched in July 2012, regular police will be able to crosscheck photographs, possessions and additional information on missing persons.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on 15 February that “a world-first missing persons campaign” was to be launched in Australia using corporate websites to publicize 50 long-term cases. The movement of a cursor on the search box of a company website would trigger a drop-box showing the photograph and details of a missing person. An email connection would help users report possible sightings.

And on 19 February the Australian Associated Press reported that police were urging people to activate geotagging on their mobile phones to help track down anyone who might go missing as a result of cyclones that were expected to make landfall in Northern Australia. The geotagging function logs the geographical coordinates of users’ photos when shared on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.