Subjectively, a missing person is anyone whose whereabouts are not known and who is being sought by another person or other persons.
The term “missing person” acquires an objective meaning when a person is formally reported as missing, or when an unidentified body is discovered.
The police will search for missing persons who are considered at risk, for example children. However, a police investigation will not automatically be carried out in the case of a missing person who is not considered at risk, such as a mentally competent adult.
A criminal tribunal investigating a crime against humanity, a massacre for instance, will look for reported missing persons in order to prove that a crime has been committed. Ideally, the tribunal will do this by locating victims’ remains. Locating individual missing persons among the victims may be of secondary importance in such investigations. From the perspective of the criminal tribunal, “missing person” is first of all a common characteristic of persons who may belong to a group of crime victims. So, when instances of missing persons are reported to a criminal tribunal, this may not result in individual cases being investigated and resolved. In addition, individuals whose reported disappearance will not serve as evidence of the alleged crime may not be included in the investigation at all.
In contrast to this, humanitarian efforts generally concentrate on alleviating the anguish of relatives and others close to persons who have been reported missing as a consequence of armed conflict. As a result, humanitarian efforts may not concentrate on persons reported missing if their disappearance is not clearly attributable to a specific armed conflict.
Whether a person is considered to be missing may also depend on the means that are employed to locate missing persons, in particular on cooperative frameworks that combine approaches and resources. Criminal tribunals will typically apply methods permitted under criminal procedure codes that also prescribe the rights of victims and suspects. Humanitarian interventions may not be as closely regulated and as a result may tend to be less formal and also less rigorous. Police investigations into missing persons cases, unless they are part of a criminal investigation, will aim primarily to address the risks to which the missing person may be exposed, such as trafficking across borders or other forms of abuse.
Each approach may yield results depending on the circumstance of the disappearance. However, and bearing in mind that the circumstances are often not known with certainty, each leaves gaps – and the gaps tend to widen when one approach is adopted to the exclusion of others.
In the field of armed conflict an extraordinary shift has occurred in the course of the last century that has compounded the problem of missing persons. A ratio of 10 civilian deaths for every combatant killed has been reported for wars fought since the mid-20th century. By contrast, for World War One that ratio has been estimated at nine combatant deaths for each civilian killed. Battlefields have spread into villages and towns and cities, and the physical abuse of civilian populations has become an objective and an instrument of war, for example through ethnic cleansing. This encroachment of organized violence into the non-combatant sphere has produced an exponential rise in the number of civilians missing in conflict. Some of the most shocking examples in recent decades are Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Syria and Iraq.
Human Rights Abuses
Authoritarian regimes continue to use the practice of “enforced disappearance” as an instrument of social and political control. Since illegal arrest and detention is, by its nature, devoid of accountability or due process, families of those who have been “disappeared” have no recourse to the law. The absence of the victim and the anonymity of the perpetrators makes this a crime that is both sinister and very hard to combat. By the same token, the ease with which a government may be able to make citizens disappear multiplies the fear it inspires among citizens.
Natural and Manmade Disasters
Natural disasters, such as the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami or the 2012 earthquake in Haiti, have left hundreds of thousands of missing. Although there are no reliable or comprehensive statistics regarding numbers of persons who go missing every year as a result of disasters, the increased frequency of destructive weather patterns and seismic events is likely to have increased the numbers of missing persons as a result of these phenomena.
The rise of the illegal narcotics industry in South and Central America has produced a toxic combination of drug cartels, right-wing and left-wing paramilitaries and heavy-handed security forces. In every instance, this has resulted in an epidemic of intimidation, murder and disappearance. In Mexico, almost 3,000 people were killed in the first year of the war on drugs launched by newly-elected President Felipe Calderon. In 2014 the Mexican authorities reported that 12,532 people who had disappeared during the 2006-12 Calderon administration were still missing, and a further 9,790 had already disappeared in the first two years of President Enrique Pena Nieto’s term.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that one billion people – out of seven billion people on the planet – are today part of a migratory movement. Thousands go missing every year on journeys across inhospitable terrain, on the high seas aboard unsuitable and overcrowded vessels, and crossing dangerous borders often at the mercy of criminal gangs. Amnesty International reported in 2012 that between 2006 and 2012, 70,000 persons migrating from South to North America disappeared. The fault lines between the rich North and the poor South have become dying zones for refugees and migrants. An October 2014 report in the Guardian newspaper cited a casualty rate of 2,500 people trying to cross the Mediterranean illicitly just in the first nine months of 2014. Violence in Gaza, Syria, Iraq and North Africa had fuelled a surge in migration that saw 160,000 arrivals in Europe. The Italian navy was reported to have rescued 90,000 people at sea. Dangerous migrations are also underway in Southeast Asia, from Bangladesh to Thailand, for example.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime issued a report in 2009, which suggested that the problem of people trafficking is likely to be significantly greater than had been generally imagined. While large numbers of people go missing every year as a result of migration, many at the mercy of people smugglers, trafficking and smuggling are fundamentally different. Traffickers detain and coerce their victims before during and after transportation inside countries and across borders. In such cases the “disappearance” actually occurs before the victims begin their journey. The UNODC Report found that sexual exploitation is the most commonly identified form of human trafficking (79%), followed by forced labor. Surprisingly, the Report also found that a disproportionate number of women are traffickers: it concluded that female offenders have a more prominent role in present-day slavery than in most other forms of crime. Europe is the destination for victims from the widest range of origins, while victims from Asia are trafficked to the widest range of destinations, the Report found. A central point highlighted by UNODC is that the true scale of the problem is not yet understood – which, in turn, means that the extent of people trafficking’s role in the global missing persons problem is only now beginning to be gauged.
The overwhelming majority of persons missing from armed conflict are male civilians, and men similarly tend to be the principal victims in regard to organized crime, though people traffickers connected to the global sex industry disproportionately target women and children. A report published in October 2014 found that in the United States, male and female missing persons reflect the statistical gender average. However, the same report showed that African Americans account for a disproportionately high number of missing persons. It also found that three quarters of missing persons in the U.S. are under the age of 18.
The vast scale and the pernicious nature of the phenomenon of missing persons in the 21st century is still becoming apparent and the global response to this global crisis is still evolving. ICMP is the only international organization that addresses every kind of involuntary disappearance – whether the result of migration, natural disaster, political repression, crime or military conflict. Consistent with its inclusive approach, ICMP addresses the issue through a comprehensive set of strategies and instruments including civil advocacy, support for the rule of law, working through the established institutions of different countries, and pioneering and delivering state-of-the-art techniques including mass DNA identification programs.
This holistic approach is particularly important since until now – faced with new and dramatically increased challenges in this field – the response by organizations and governments to the phenomenon of missing persons has tended to be piecemeal and has often been contradictory. Conflicting legal interpretations and treaty obligations, and incompatible operating methods among different agencies have reduced the effectiveness of efforts to locate and identify the missing.