Estimates cited by the UN in 2021 indicate that more than 130,000 persons are missing as a result of the current conflict in Syria. In addition, the country has a legacy of missing and disappeared persons cases linked to human rights abuses and other causes that occurred prior to the conflict. Syrians who have fled the fighting have also gone missing along migratory routes, on treacherous Mediterranean crossings or through criminal enterprises that prey upon migrants and refugees, including child trafficking in Europe and elsewhere. In addition, non-Syrians have gone missing in Syria, including journalists, ISIS fighters, combatants from foreign armies and others. And there are children living in detention centers whose parents – ISIS fighters and others – are missing.
In Syria itself, there are persons missing as a consequence of summary executions, arbitrary and incommunicado detention, kidnapping and abduction, as well as combatants and civilians missing as a direct result of fighting and the day-to-day ravages of war, and war crimes. Since March 2011, more than 6.5 million have been displaced inside the country, and a further 5.6 million have fled Syria, seeking safety in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Europe and further afield, according to UNHCR data from 2018. This means that relatives of the missing may be living inside or outside of Syria.
ICMP’s Syria/MENA Program is contributing to efforts to lay the foundation for a sustainable missing persons process that ensures that all missing persons are accounted for, regardless of their ethnic or religious background, their role in the conflict or their political affiliation, and for securing the rights to justice, truth and reparations of all families of the missing. The ICMP Syria/MENA Program is being implemented in Syria, in neighboring countries among refugees, and along migratory routes.
ICMP, working together with Syrian civil society organizations (CSOs) and family associations, is focusing on steps that can be taken now to help find missing persons and secure the rights of families of the missing. The program aims to contribute to a missing persons process that is based on the rule of law and that actively engages families of the missing in the process.
The ICMP Syria/MENA Program is working to:
- Establish the foundation for a missing persons database. A secure, centralized and impartial database trusted by all stakeholders is crucial for accounting for large numbers of missing persons. ICMP’s Integrated Data Management System (iDMS) has a proven track record. Following the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, ICMP spearheaded an effort that has made it possible to account for more than 70 percent of the 40,000 people who went missing. A substantial number of Syrian missing persons cases have already been uploaded to the iDMS through ICMP’s Online Inquiry Center (OIC) or via CSOs. Improved documentation and data collection can support the inclusion of the missing persons issue in any future peace and reconciliation process and reduce the scope for false narratives or political manipulation of the missing persons issue.
- Foster and support cooperation among Syrian civil society organizations, including families of the missing, to strengthen their ability to influence peace negotiations and policymaking related to the missing. This includes providing platforms for CSO representatives to develop a common policy agenda on missing persons.
- Foster and support cooperation among states that host Syrian refugees and migrants, relevant institutions and others to allow refugees and migrants to report missing persons cases. This work is linked with ICMP’s Missing Migrants and Refugee Program, which seeks to foster cooperation among governments and others to address the issue of missing migrants and refugees.
- Strengthen the capacity of Syrian civil society organizations and families of the missing to participate in and influence the process of accounting for missing persons, including by ensuring that it is included in any future peace settlement. To this end, ICMP is providing comprehensive and continuous support to families of the missing, including opportunities for female-led CSOs and female leaders to exchange experiences and report missing persons through the OIC. ICMP is also providing seminars and consultations for organizations that inform families about their legal rights, the characteristics of a rule-of-law based missing persons process, and ICMP support. ICMP also supports CSO-led, peer-to-peer teaching on advocacy, visibility and other topics, and disburses small grants to family associations and CSOs that work to engage families and refugee communities in the missing persons process. As part of its capacity-building efforts, ICMP is training stakeholders in the forensic process to locate, recover and identify the missing.
As of July 2023, ICMP’s Syria/MENA program has continued its efforts by:
- Creating a secure, centralized and impartial database of missing and disappeared persons, using ICMP’s Integrated Data Management System (iDMS)
- ICMP has collected data from almost 73,500 relatives of the missing, who reported almost 27,000 missing persons cases. This data was collected from persons living in Syria and among refugee populations living outside of Syria;
- ICMP has also collected genetic reference samples from 175 relatives of the missing residing as refugees in Europe as well as reference samples from 88 relatives of the missing residing in Duhok, Kurdistan Region of Iraq;
- 3,046 families of the missing have reported missing persons to ICMP through the Online Inquiry Center (OIC) from inside as well as outside Syria. In addition, ICMP has received reports concerning the location of 67 potential locations of sites of forensic interest, including the location of mass graves, or other sites through ICMP’s OIC Site Locator.
- Unifying Syrian civil society and families of the missing on policy measures
- Building on the Policy Process with Syrian Civil Society Organizations and Families of the Missing, which ICMP launched in 2018, ICMP has successfully facilitated the creation of a Policy Coordination Group (PCG), which is led by Syrian families of the missing and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) from all communities. The goal of the PCG is to help Syrian stakeholders develop recommendations and a policy framework for a sustainable missing person process, including addressing issues such as the release of detainees and other measures that can be undertaken urgently to find missing persons, the creation of a future Syrian Commission on Missing Persons, Central Record, and purpose-specific legislation, and the inclusion of the issue in a future constitution and peace agreement;
- The PCG is gender balanced and represents the diversity of Syria’s communities. It is composed of 27 Syrians, including families of the missing, legal experts, human rights defenders, members of the Syrian Constitutional Committee and civil society representatives. The PCG also includes four international experts;
The PCG has so far:
- Released an Ethical Charter for Data Collection and Documentation of Syria’s Missing on standards and codes of conduct to be followed during data collection and documentation of missing persons. The Charter was published at a virtual event on 30 August 2021 marking the International Day of the Disappeared,
- Sent a submission to the Human Rights Council’s 40th session for the Universal Periodic Review of Syria. The report titled “Syria: Towards Addressing the Issue of Missing Persons” examined the issue of missing persons at the hands of the Syrian government and concluded with recommendations related to international agencies and instruments and recommendations related to domestic matters, and
- Recommended a set of provisions in a future Syrian constitution to enable a sustainable and just process to account for more than 100,000 persons missing from the conflict. These recommendations include guarantees related to the right to a fair trial, protection of the physical and mental integrity of those under detention or arrest, reform of the security services, the independence of the judiciary, and transitional justice measures, including the establishment of a Syrian Commission on Missing Persons and purpose-specific legislation designed to secure the rights of relatives of the missing to justice, truth and reparations;
- The PCG released a paper on missing persons legislation and institutions to enable a sustainable and just process to account for hundreds of thousands of missing persons due to the ongoing conflict in Syria.
- Ensuring cooperation among States hosting Syrian refugees and between relevant international organizations
- Intergovernmental Roundtable:
ICMP has held three high-level meetings of government representatives from countries hosting large numbers of Syrian refugees in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region and in Europe, including Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands. Representatives from foreign ministries and ambassadors participated in these meetings, which are critical to ensuring political support among governments and supporting the implementation of ICMP’s Syria Program, including the collection of data from Syrian refugee communities.
Capacity Building for representatives of CSOs, family associations, survivor groups and families of the missing
- Learning and Development – Wim Kok Center for Excellence and Learning (CEL)
ICMP has provided six learning and development courses to first responders and stakeholders directly involved in excavations in Northeast Syria on how to safeguard evidence.
- Learning and Development Seminars – Civil Society Initiatives (CSI):
ICMP conducted five learning seminars for families and civil society leaders to deepen their understanding of how they can shape policies to account for missing persons and hold authorities accountable. These seminars provided participants with tools and knowhow, strengthening their capacity to influence and participate meaningfully in Syria’s missing persons’ process. The seminars were attended by 229 Civil society representatives, of whom 79 percent were women, across Syria and neighboring countries.
- Facilitated Seminars
ICMP conducted 40 facilitated seminars with representatives of CSOs, family groups and survivor groups, including 16 facilitated seminars with women-led CSOs.
- Outreach Seminars
ICMP conducted 267 outreach seminars for a total of 4,382 family members, of whom 2,713 were women, on the importance of data collection, the crucial role played by families who provide information about their missing relatives, ICMP’s data protection policies, the OIC, and the iDMS. Participants also learned how to use the OIC to report missing persons to ICMP.
- Small Grants
ICMP has provided Small Grants to 55 Syrian CSOs (and their partners) to help build their capacity and independence and to support advocacy efforts. The small grants were implemented in Northeast Syria, Northwest Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Europe.