No trace of you: a growing humanitarian tragedy

In just one year, more than 3,300 people disappeared while seeking safety in Europe. Behind each one, there’s a family in pain searching for news. Safe passage could help stop this pain.

Last updated 30 August 2023

Watch: For every missing person lost while seeking safety, there's a family in pain

Duration of video: 1:30

“He does not know what happened to his mother, if she was also rescued by a boat or if she died at sea. He simply remarked that his mother had ‘vanished’ or was ‘lost’ in the water.”

Rayeesa, a caseworker in the British Red Cross International Family Tracing team, remembers 17-year-old Jemal well.

“He was from Eritrea originally”, she says.

“He had separated from his mother in the water, which is quite unusual for us because most separation cases happen on the shoreline, where smugglers may forcibly separate families into different boats, or when authorities come to the shoreline and people flee.

“In this case, mother and son had taken a boat together, the boat started to sink and he lost his mother in the water.”

Jemal and the other survivors were rescued, but he doesn’t know what happened to his mother, and the truth is, he might never find out. He just told Rayeesa that he just ‘wanted to find her’. The alternative was too painful to contemplate.

Rayeesa calls this uncertainty ‘ambiguous loss.’

It can be excruciatingly painful because the person doesn’t have the opportunity to grieve. Eventually, the glimmer of hope they cling on to becomes paralysing, stopping them from moving on with their lives.

And with record numbers or people disappearing on the migration route to Europe, more and more refugees are experiencing it.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, more than 3,300 migrants disappeared on their way to Europe in 2021. That’s the same as three packed London tube trains.

These are only the registered cases - the true number is likely to be much higher. This means that thousands of families across the UK are silently suffering, after one or more family members have gone missing along the migration route.

“It’s something to bear in mind when we come across those who have migrated in our daily lives. They might be a young person without their parents, or an adult separated from their children,” Rayeesa says.

“That’s why marking Day of the Disappeared is so important.”

Time doesn’t heal, answers do

The active search for missing loved ones can continue for decades. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement works together with families in the search for missing relatives, through their Restoring Family Links programme.

Rayeesa tried to help Jemal find his mother using an online tool called ‘Trace the Face.’ Set up by the Red Cross in 2013, it allows people to post their photo publicly, alongside a reference number and their relationship to their lost loved one.

As a service coordinator, Rayeesa conducts thorough interviews with the service users. She gets as much information as possible on who they are, the person they’re looking for, the circumstances of their separation and potentially the last known address of the person they’re looking for.

In countries where there’s no established postcode system, Rayeesa gets them to draw a map of where they lived in relation to a landmark within a village, town or city.

This information is sent to the central team who coordinate with national societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, who follow up on tracing overseas.

“A lot of people who are migrating to Europe don’t know their destination,” Rayeesa explains. “All they are told is they’re going to a safe country – many have never heard of the UK.

“They might know, for instance, that they’re going to Greece, but not which island they’re going to.”

“Jamel and his mother may have been heading to either Italy or Greece,” Rayeesa says.

“Without more information, we couldn’t do a search in Greece, but we were able to send a tracing request to the Italian Red Cross to check their records of possible rescues or shipwrecks.”

At this point in the process, Rayeesa explains the three possible outcomes to her service users.

“The first could be a positive trace, which is what we all hope for. The second outcome is unfortunately news of death. The third, which is the most common, is no trace, where we have found no information on the person being searched for.”

For Jemal, the long wait for news begins. His life is also in limbo, as he waits for his refugees status alone, in a country he doesn’t know.


Calling for safe routes

Shockingly, the majority of Rayeesa’s cases now involve unaccompanied children like Jemal, who have arrived in the UK alone and searching for their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.

She wants to raise awareness of why people come to the UK and risk their lives and their family’s lives crossing the channel.

“Some people come to the UK because they already know people here, like another family member, or they speak English well.

“They might make the journey because they know there’s an established community of people from their home country in the UK.

“However, the truth is, people often don’t know what country they’re going to. Their main concern is going to a safe place. It doesn’t matter where that is.”

The British Red Cross has been calling for safe passage for migration and effective asylum policies to help prevent people going missing.

As long as people are forced to take dangerous routes and make desperate choices, families will continue to get separated.

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