Search for Africa’s 44,000 ‘disappeared’ complicated by pandemic

Red Cross warns that once-common strategies to reunite families no longer possible

The coronavirus pandemic is complicating efforts to reunite families separated by conflicts in Africa, the International Committee of the Red Cross has warned, ahead of the annual International Day of the Disappeared on August 30th.

Nearly 44,000 people are registered as missing across the African continent, of whom 45 per cent disappeared as children. Nigeria, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia, Libya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon account for 82 per cent of all cases.

Family members can lose each other as they flee attacks, or someone could die and be buried in an unmarked grave, with no way of tracing them, said Crystal Wells, a Red Cross spokeswoman. She said attempting family reunifications was “a humanitarian need, much like food and shelter and clean water and medical care”, and that relatives had a right to know what had happened.

“[Asking] where is my husband, where is my sister, where is my family – that obviously causes so much emotional turmoil . . . It is a bit like needle-in-a-haystack work but it does happen – we do reunite people.”


In 2019, the Red Cross reunited 897 people with their families, including 713 children. This year it has reunited 409 so far.

Beyond physical reunifications, the fates of 3,647 of those registered as missing were discovered in 2019 and 1,825 more in 2020 – some of whom were alive but unable to be brought together, and others discovered to have died.

Disconnected in Nigeria

Nigeria has the highest number of missing people registered, at nearly 23,000. More than 20,000 are in the northeast, where an insurgency by Islamic militants has raged since 2009.

Boko Haram has been known to destroy telephone lines to stop civilians calling for help when they launch assaults, leading areas they conquer to become completely disconnected from the rest of the country.

In 2017, The Irish Times went to Gwoza, the former Boko Haram headquarters, visiting a camp for displaced people. One woman, Haziza, said she had been separated from her two children and her mother, brother and sister. Communications had been cut off, meaning she had no way to contact anyone outside the remote town, which was garrisoned by soldiers.

Before Covid-19, Ms Wells said, one of the Red Cross’s strategies was gathering large numbers of people together and using a megaphone to call out names. In South Sudan, Red Cross staff created flipbooks with photos of searchers, “so people could gather and flip through and see if they could see their brother or their mother or their daughter”.

In Somalia the Red Cross works with the BBC to broadcast missing people’s names.

Thousands have also uploaded photos to a Red Cross website, Trace the Face, which allows people searching for someone to make an appeal or scroll through photos of others.

Wells said the pandemic had made everything more challenging. “We can’t be gathering large numbers of people together, so increasingly the programmes that are most able to adapt to this new reality are those that are using other forms of communication.”

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa