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Remembering the Missing in Southern Africa

29 Mar 2021
By Lucinda Evert
The Family Of Zibusiso Ndhlovo In Zimbabwe. They Are Searching For Their Missing Relative. Credit Stephen Fonseca. Photo supplied by the ICRC

A missing or lost life impacts others, the effects of which can be far reaching and last lifetimes. Acknowledging this, the International Committee of the Red Cross’s (ICRC) Missing and Deceased Migrant Program seeks to confront the issue.

The movement of people across borders is an international phenomenon. Migrants leave their homes for many reasons including the pursuit of economic opportunities, political instability, and environmental hazards. The tragedy is that many migrants go missing, and can disappear in a variety of circumstances. They may perish during the dangerous journey, or once they arrive in the destination country, they may be detained without access to any means of communication, or they or their families may choose not to seek assistance for fear it may lead to deportation. It is important that these migrants, in such vulnerable circumstances, are not forgotten.

The crisis of missing and deceased migrants and the tracing of relatives involve intricate issues that differ from other humanitarian mass disasters. It is widely considered an open disaster, as the number of individuals involved is often unknown and timeframes are not confined. It is also important to understand that missing persons and unidentified bodies – no matter where and who they are – still affect society more broadly. These effects extend not only to families of the missing but also to local government authorities tasked with handling these cases, as well as to law.

It is often the women left behind who are affected most when husbands and fathers migrate to other countries to provide a better life for their loved ones. Unfortunately, if they do go missing during this journey, this absence or death of a parent or spouse is often used as a pretext to deprive family members of their human rights. This includes economic, social, and cultural rights such as social benefits, property and inheritance, the ability to remarry or exercise paternal rights.

Hoping to address the issue of missing and deceased migrants in Africa, the ICRC undertook a pilot project in South Africa and Zimbabwe from 2016 to 2018, working together with South African and Zimbabwean authorities to complement existing systems, tools, and resources used to locate missing migrants – living or deceased. The objectives included providing families of missing and deceased migrants with answers about the fate of their loved ones, restoring the identity and dignity of deceased migrants, and enabling the return of their human remains to their loved ones for proper burial. As well, they sought to improve the manner in which families, public authorities, and forensic practitioners share information used to search for and identify missing and deceased migrants.

The initial phase involved engaging with authorities and community groups to better understand the problem. This was followed by the registration of missing persons cases by conducting interviews with their families.  During the interviews, information on the possible whereabouts of the missing person and personal data which could be used in identification was collected and compiled as a tracing request. Since its inception and over the continuation of tracing request collection into 2019, 103 tracing requests have been registered with the ICRC. Of these, 21 people were located with ICRC efforts and an additional nine people were located after having been registered for tracing by the ICRC. 73 cases are still pending, and tracing as well as forensics efforts are still ongoing. This pilot project confirmed that when a conduit is accessible for reporting of missing relatives, families will readily participate. Furthermore, families provide very useful ante mortem data and forensically pertinent information that is suitable for tracing inquiries that can be entered into various databases managed by authorities and used to complement efforts towards identifying deceased persons.

For any identification to be successful, adequate information to compare these missing person cases to is required. To this end, the ICRC works with authorities to enhance forensic identification procedures used in one of the leading mortuaries in the country.  This involves introducing secondary identification examinations, standardising forms and processes, and training of practitioners and forensic students. This specialised forensic team processed 108 unidentified bodies during that time and of those who underwent secondary examinations, 38 identifications were confirmed. The remaining bodies have yet to be identified.

While no matches were made specifically yet between the unidentified bodies processed by the mortuary and those family inquiries collected in Zimbabwe by the ICRC, the personal and biological information of missing persons provided by families is now recognised as offering opportunities to maximise identification efforts in the future through systematic comparison that extends beyond visual recognition and fingerprinting. The pilot project also highlighted the effectiveness of enhanced identification examination methods and the fewer persons remaining unidentified in mortuaries as a result. To date, through the committed efforts of the specialised forensic team, over 500 cases have undergone secondary identifications with 97 of these being positively identified.

Due to the success of the pilot project, the ICRC decided to further develop it into a multi-phase program. During the next phases, the program will expand its collection of missing persons data into other regions within Zimbabwe, while including other mortuary facilities in areas with high migrant populations. It is further envisaged that the program will be expanded to the rest of the Southern African Development Community and be used as a model for other regions along well-established migration routes, with eventual adoption by the African Union.

For any meaningful action when addressing the issue of missing and deceased migrants, there needs to be a shift towards increased humanitarian understanding in both public and policy discussions, as well as new forms of cooperation across borders to search for information about those who go missing or perish. The ICRC, through its Missing and Deceased Migrant Program, is endeavoring to take on this task – to provide families with the closure they both need and deserve.

This article is part of the “Gender & Humanitarian Action” series run by the International Committee of the Red Cross in partnership with Australian Outlook.

Lucinda Evert is a Forensic Specialist with the ICRC Pretoria Delegation covering South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.  Her academic background is in Medical Sciences and Medical Criminalistics which has been complemented with over 12 years’ experience in the forensic field working for both the Forensic Pathology Services and the South African Police Services’ Victim Identification Center.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.