Global Missing Persons Trends

ICMP’s Daily World News Digest  (link to http://www.icmp.int/category/daily-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.

Missing Persons in Asia

In March, a series of stories appeared dealing with the significant missing persons problem in Asia, as a result of migration in many instances and, in many other instances, as a result of governments circumventing judicial process in the name of public security.

The Eurasiareview reported on 1 March (http://bit.ly/1FMSxqV) that as many as 36 million people may be victims of trafficking worldwide, and two-thirds of this number may be from Asia. The article noted that profits from worldwide forced labor and sex trafficking may be as high as $150 billion annually. A report in the Washington Post (http://wapo.st/1FuDPY1) on 16 March added further statistical context to the subject of global migration patterns, describing a new statistical model developed at the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital in Vienna to analyze the flow of migrants around the world. The Wittgenstein Centre research shows that nearly two million Mexicans emigrated to the US between 2005 and 2010, and there were substantial flows to the US from China, India and the Philippines. In addition, there were huge flows of migrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines into the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

People trafficking was one of the issues raised by the International Federation of Human Rights Associations (FIDH) in a statement on the situation in Cambodia (http://bit.ly/1DMal5L) issued on 3 March. It said that the Cambodian government has failed to comply with its fundamental civil and political rights obligations, frequently using provisions of the 2010 Criminal Code, such as defamation, insult, or incitement, “to harass, threaten, and arbitrarily detain human rights defenders, activists, and opposition politicians”. FIDH noted that trafficking of men and women for labor, mostly to Thailand and Malaysia, remains a serious issue of concern.

Human rights abuses in Laos have also attracted attention as the country prepares to take over the rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2016. On 2 March Human Rights Watch issued a statement (http://bit.ly/1B4P6LB) calling on Australia to raise human rights concerns in talks with the government of Laos. Among other things, Human Rights Watch urged Australian officials to raise concerns with their Lao counterparts about the enforced disappearance of prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who was abducted in Vientiane in December 2012.

AsiaNews.It reported on 20 March (http://bit.ly/1xrrx1y) that a study by police in western Nepal has found that every year in Nepal “5,000 women disappear as a result of human trafficking related to prostitution and organ harvesting.” Often, the victims are sold by their families, the report said, noting that in many cases, families do not report the disappearance for fear of being accused by the authorities.

On 12 March FIDH called on Thailand to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) (http://bit.ly/1GGJXhB) and step up efforts to investigate the enforced disappearance of Somchai Neelapaijit, a lawyer who defended the rights of members of Muslim communities in the south of the country, and who was abducted in Bangkok on 12 March 2004. Thailand signed the ICPPED in January 2012 but has not yet ratified the treaty. After ratification, Thai authorities will have an obligation to investigate enforced disappearances and bring those responsible to justice. This will also apply to cases that occurred prior to ratification.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement on 18 March (http://bit.ly/1CyzsMe) calling on the authorities in Thailand to investigate the alleged torture of suspects held incommunicado in military custody. HRW has repeatedly raised serious concerns regarding the use of secret military detention by the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). Since the May 2014 coup, the NCPO, headed by Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has detained hundreds of politicians, activists, journalists, and people accused of supporting the deposed government, disrespecting or offending the monarchy, or being involved in anti-coup protests and activities, Human Rights Watch said. It added that the NCPO continually refuses to provide information about people in secret detention, and it concluded by noting that the risk of enforced disappearance, torture, and other ill-treatment significantly increases when detainees are held incommunicado in military detention.

The China Post carried a story on 17 March (http://bit.ly/1MI8rFP) stating that Chinese authorities detained nearly 1,000 human rights defenders in 2014, according to a report released on 16 March by Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD). CHRD recorded 955 cases of activists and others it describes as rights defenders being deprived of their freedom in 2014. The total for the previous two years was 1,160.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement on 18 March (http://bit.ly/19yFNec) calling on the Bangladeshi authorities to order an independent investigation into the enforced disappearance of Salah Uddin Ahmed, spokesperson and joint-secretary of the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP). Ahmed was last seen on the evening of 10 March 2015 when, according to an eyewitness, he was taken away by men identifying themselves as belonging to the Detective Branch of the police. The government has denied involvement or knowledge of his whereabouts. Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented enforced disappearances in Bangladesh, largely by members of the security forces, since at least 2007. In 2012, BNP leader Elias Ali also went missing, and the authorities have failed to determine his fate.

Bangladesh newspaper The Daily Star reported on 23 March (http://bit.ly/1EDZZmG) that rights group Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) on 22 March expressed concern over what it described as a rising number of illegal detentions. It said family members have alleged that plainclothes police detained 20 people across the country between 1 January and 16 March, subsequently denying involvement.

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Sri Lanka and Pakistan

Two Asian countries are witnessing significant developments in efforts to address the issue of missing persons.

In the wake of January’s presidential elections, in which Mahinda Rajapksa was unexpectedly defeated by Maithripala Sirisena, the incoming government in Sri Lanka has promised a fundamental shift away from the authoritarian Rajapaksa regime, which ended nearly three decades of fighting with Tamil separatists but was accused of widespread human rights abuses including large numbers of enforced disappearances.

In Pakistan, the courts have emerged as the principal recourse for families of citizens whose disappearance has been associated with security measures implemented by state and fedral authorities.

The Times of India reported on 28 February (http://bit.ly/1GjooDr) that Sri Lanka’s Presidential Commission on Missing Persons had begun a three-day session in the eastern city of Trincomalee amid protests by Tamil groups who insist that the Commission’s approach is ill suited to the task of finding those who have been forcibly disappeared.

On 4 March the Indian Express reported (http://bit.ly/1BSpogT) that the Chief Minister of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province had stated that many Tamils who disappeared during the war are in unofficial government detention. The same day, the TamilNet news portal reported (http://bit.ly/1M8bd6W) that family members calling for an international investigation into missing persons in Sri Lanka had protested in front of government offices in Jaffna, following reports that the UN had acceded to the expressed wish of the government in Colombo to continue with a domestic rather than an international investigation. The Tamil Guardian reported on 5 March (http://bit.ly/1MbYt0W) that as many as 84 percent of people in the North-East of Sri Lanka have had a family member detained, according to the UK-based Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice.

Sri Lanka’s Sunday Leader newspaper reported on 15 March (http://bit.ly/1LgBgh8) that a group of women from Sri Lanka participated in a vigil organized by Amnesty International outside the Palais de Nations in Geneva on 12 March to demand justice for the families of missing persons. It said the Sri Lanka Women’s Action Network (WAN) intended to repeat the demonstration in Brussels and The Hague.

On 12 March the BBC reported (http://bbc.in/1B79EQ8) that President Sirisena had indicated that a domestic inquiry into alleged war crimes committed during the civil war should be launched within a month. Sirisena told the BBC that Sri Lanka will not allow UN war crimes investigators to visit but “we can take account of their opinion in doing our work, to make it more fruitful”, which, the BBC says, is a significant change from the previous government’s absolute refusal to countenance a UN role.

The Colombo Page news portal reported on 23 March (http://bit.ly/1FRHFdN) that the Presidential Commission Investigating Cases of Missing Persons had postponed the presentation of its interim report to President Sirisena. The report was to be have been handed to the President on 18 March.

In Pakistan, meanwhile, human rights abuses, including disappearances, continue at an alarming rate, especially in Balochistan in the west and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the north of the country.

The BBC reported on 5 March (http://bbc.in/1B9TQkn) that Pakistani authorities had stopped a Balochistan rights activist from leaving the country to participate in a conference in the US. Abdul Qadeer Baloch and two other activists were prevented from boarding a flight at Karachi Airport. The 73-year-old campaigns for people whose family members have disappeared in Balochistan’s overlapping conflicts.

The Samaa news portal reported on 5 March (http://bit.ly/1BG5FiV) that a lawyer working on missing persons cases was shot and killed in Karachi on 4 March. Ali Hasnain Bukhari, an advocate and a member of the Legal Aid Committee of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a major political party in Sindh Province, was shot by two men who escaped by motorbike. Bukhari was said to be working on missing persons cases related to party activists.

Also on 5 March the Express Tribune of Pakistan reported (http://bit.ly/1Ek1ECI) that a 23-year old man alleged to have been forcibly detained by security officials in April 2014 near Karachi had returned home. Rohail Laghari, thought to be a worker of the banned Jeay Sindh Muttahida Mahaz (JSMM), which advocates independence for the Sindh region, said that he was released in the mountains behind Sindh University. He claimed that he was beaten and interrogated about his connection to JSMM, adding that he told the interrogators that he was not affiliated with any political or nationalist group.

The Dawn news portal in Pakistan reported on 17 March (http://bit.ly/1LsXwob) that the Supreme Court had been told the same day that two missing persons earlier believed to have been “disappeared” but later found incarcerated at an internment center had “died of cardiac arrest”. The Court was hearing a petition by rights activist on behalf of the two detained men. Both men were sent to internment centers established under the Action in Aid of Civil Power Regulations (AACPR) 2011, promulgated by the former president, Asif Ali Zardari. The AACPR allows the civil government to confine persons suspected of terrorism.

On 25 March the News website from Pakistan carried a story (http://bit.ly/1NeThIo) noting that eight persons who had been reported as missing have been located in government internment centers, where they had been moved after having been declared hardcore militants. Judges at Peshawar High Court ruled on the eight cases on 24 March, ordering the authorities to allow relatives to visit the detainees, and inviting family members to file suit if they are refused visitation rights or if proper medical facilities are not given to the detainees. On the instructions of the High Court, the authorities at internment centers in northern Pakistan have started submitting reports on persons who have been reported as missing.

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Missing Children

A disturbing trend reflected in news stories from around the world in March concerns the high incidence of disappearances among children and young people.

On 19 March the WUSA9 News channel from Washington DC in the US reported (http://on.wusa9.com/1FHwfsS) that in the United States a child goes missing approximately once every 90 seconds. It cited National Center for Missing and Exploited Children statistics showing that nearly 800,000 children are reported missing in a year; approximately 10% of those children are classified as non-family abductions; one in six endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in 2014 were likely sex trafficking victims.

The Niagara Gazette reported on 21 March (http://bit.ly/1GJFmYO) that Senator Charles Schumer of New York has re-introduced bipartisan legislation known as The Bringing Missing Children Home Act to better protect missing and exploited children in the US. The act would improve law enforcement reporting and response procedures in cases of missing children by refining and streamlining how cases of missing children are handled.  With 10,312 upstate New York children reported missing in 2013, and 1,269 of those cases still active, they would make what Schumer calls “several commonsense changes” to existing rules.

The Winnipeg Sun reported on 24 March (http://bit.ly/1y57m43) that new information released by an opposition party shows that the majority of the more than 6,500 people reported missing in Winnipeg last year were young people in the care of Child and Family Services. “The fact that these children are reported missing means they are not receiving the care they desperately need and deserve,” opposition politician Brian Pallister said at a press conference on 24 March. In total, according to the Canadian Police Information Centre’s statistical report, 6,458 children and young people were reported missing across the province in 2014. The opposition also noted in the last five years, the total number of reported missing children and young people has increased by 22 percent in the province, while the average in Canada has decreased by 20 percent.

USA Today reported on 28 February (http://usat.ly/1M3BzJc) that baby trafficking has become a lucrative business in Kenya. It cites a slum district in the Capital, Nairobi, where it says it is common for gangs to steal or buy infants. Children in Kenya can fetch between $2,000 and $3,000, depending on their gender, race and tribe, far more than the $1,246 annual income the average Kenyan earns, the article says.

The BBC reported on 11 March (http://bbc.in/1GqmRIr) that an illegal market in children has developed in China, in which babies are being openly sold online. The Chinese government provides no figures, but the US State Department has estimated that 20,000 children are abducted annually, or 400 a week, the BBC said. Chinese state media have suggested the true figure could even be 200,000 per year, though the police reject this higher estimate. A baby boy can sell for up to $16,000, according to the BBC, double the price for a girl.

Shanghaiist.com web portal reported on 15 March (http://bit.ly/1BIWixk) that a policeman in Jiangsu province in eastern China who created and managed a Weibo account to find missing persons has successfully located 700 missing children over the past three years. Qin Yongming releases one notice about a missing person every day. So far, he has posted more than 1,000 updates and has over 360,000 followers. According to Sina News, 90 percent of minors he reported as missing have been returned home.

An article in the New Indian Express on 16 March (http://bit.ly/1Ej8i75) stated that 20 children go missing in Delhi every day and police have proved ineffective in dealing with trafficking gangs that are responsible for some abductions. In the first quarter of the year, 1,120 children went missing in Delhi, of whom 621 were girls.

The Economic Times of India (http://bit.ly/1xAC8lf) reported on 18 March that a missing persons initiative started by police in a town near New Delhi has been taken up by police in other parts of the country. At the end of 2014, police in Ghaziabad announced that they had been able to recover 227 missing children within 30 days by launching a campaign, “Operation Smile”. At least eight states reported that they were able to rescue more than 2,500 missing children in January alone by emulating the Ghaziabad campaign, where more than 100 officers of different ranks were sensitized and trained on issues related to missing children and then sent to other cities to recover missing children in relation to reports lodged in Ghaziabad. Officers visited shelter homes, railway platforms, bus stands, spaces below flyovers and religious places in these cities to find that most children living there were listed in missing children databases.

The Times of India reported on 23 March (http://bit.ly/1BndSU5) that around 13 minors, including nine girls, have gone missing from the town of Mohali in the Punjab in the past three months, amid public disquiet over the apparent failure of local police to investigate effectively. “These things are inevitable,” a police officer was quoted as saying, “It is the duty of the police to trace or locate the missing or kidnapped persons. However, parents must also learn to handle their kids.”

The BBC reported on 1 March (http://bbc.in/1M0Y3sb) that hundreds of boys in South Sudan have been kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers. It said the numbers have increased since last month. UNICEF reported on 21 March (http://uni.cf/1Flr6rQ) that up to 250 child soldiers including four girls, one as young as nine, had been released in South Sudan from an armed group, the Cobra Faction. Another 400 were scheduled to be released in the following days following a peace deal between the faction and the Government. The Government’s National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission and UNICEF are working together to care for the children and reintegrate them in their communities. The Cobra Faction have advised UNICEF that they have up to 3,000 child soldiers. UNICEF South Sudan Representative Jonathan Veitch said this release takes the number of child soldiers demobilized to 1,314.

The BBC reported on 24 March (http://bbc.in/19j8Scq) that about 500 children aged 11 and under are missing from Damasak, a Nigerian town recaptured from militants. A trader in the north-eastern town told Reuters that Boko Haram fighters took the children with them when they fled. Troops from Niger and Chad seized Damasak earlier in March, ending months of control by the Islamist militants.

Historical cases

The Guardian reported on 2 March (http://bit.ly/1BBKEpz) that archaeologists are brushing away centuries of sand and dirt to reveal hundreds of skeletons in a series of mass graves in Paris. Under the Monoprix store on Boulevard Sebastopol the remains of at least 200 people have been uncovered, and experts believe there may be more, victims of a sudden and devastating disease or catastrophe in the Middle Ages. The discovery was made when the store applied to convert part of its cellar for extra storage space.

Across the channel, the Frontline Desk news portal reported on 11 March (http://bit.ly/1KUZPzS) that archaeologists in London have started the exhumation of about 3,000 skeletons of Great Plague victims from a burial ground that will become the newest train station in London. A group of 60 scientists were to work round the clock in March and April at the Bedlam cemetery to remove the old skeletons, which will be re-buried at a cemetery near London. Crossrail – the company, which will be constructing a modern East-West railway in London, said the bones would be checked to “clarify migration patterns, diet, demography, and way of life” of Londoners during the period.

The International Business Times reported on 9 March (http://bit.ly/1NIif5P) that test results that will show whether or not the “bones of Mona Lisa” have been discovered will be announced in as little as two weeks. Carbon-14 results on three skeletons exhumed from Florence’s Sant’Orsola convent will show if one of them is likely to be Lisa Gherardini, the woman believed to have sat for Leonardo da Vinci for his most famous portrait. The project leader of the Sant’Orsola bones study told reporters that DNA tests will also enable researchers to establish the color of the eyes, hair and skin of the three people whose remains were found – possibly further helping to identify the woman behind the Mona Lisa.

On 13 March, Spanish News Today reported (http://bit.ly/1MxyP70) that after a four-year investigation, scientists appear to have located the mortal remains of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, in the grounds of a Madrid convent. Hopes were raised in January when a board which could have been part of a coffin was found in the crypt of the Church of the Trinity bearing the initials M.C. Further analysis indicated that the remains actually belonged to both Cervantes and his wife, Catalina de Salazar.

CBS News reported on 9 March (http://cbsn.ws/1aZ7aP1) on a new DNA-based approach that may fill in gaps on the history of the Atlantic slave trade between 1500 and 1850. Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers led by Hannes Schroeder of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen described how they used whole genome capture to retrieve the DNA from 400-year-old skeletal remains of three slaves, known as the Zoutsteeg Three. Schroeder and his team analyzed the DNA from teeth recovered from a construction site on the Caribbean island of St Martin in 2010. They then used a different technique known as principal component analysis to compare that DNA with 11 modern West African reference populations. From this, they were able to conclude that the individuals most likely came from Bantu-speaking groups in northern Cameroon and non-Bantu-speaking communities living in present-day Nigeria and Ghana.