Around 64,000 people are considered missing in Africa — almost half of them children. War, disasters and crises tear families apart. Many dream of being reunited with their loved ones. But where should the search start?
For four years, Abdo* was forced to fend for himself without his family, still a child.
The war in South Sudan, which began in 2013, was characterized by attacks on civilians, sexual violence, looting and the recruitment of child soldiers.
And it tore apart thousands of families — including Abdo's.
He had fled Tombura in the west of the country at the age of just 13. Alone.
It wasn't until 2017 that the now 22-year-old was reunited with his mother, with the help of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
"I ate only to stay alive, but I never enjoyed it. I was unhappy because I had to think about my son, about where he is," Elena, Abdo's mother, says in a UNICEF report. "It was hard to forget him because I didn't see him dead and bury him."
Children most vulnerable
Between 2013 and 2018, Save the Children, UNICEF and their partners in South Sudan successfully reunited more than 6,000 children with their families.
But in 2018, 15,000 children were still separated from their families or missing.
According to 2022 figures from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), more than 25,000 minors are missing across Africa.
Children account for 40% of the 64,000 cases of missing persons recorded by the ICRC across Africa.
"We have a significant number of inquiries, but we know that this is just the tip of the iceberg," the ICRC's Celine Doutrelugne told DW in an interview.
The conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, for example, had separated more than 5,000 children from their parents by May 2021, according to Save the Children.
And in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), 800 children lost their parents while fleeing fighting between armed groups this year in July alone.
"In the DRC crisis, children are the most vulnerable," Arjika Barke, director of program operations for Save the Children in Goma, pointed out.
"They make up half of all displaced people and are exposed to violence, trafficking, sexual abuse and gender-based violence, recruitment into armed groups, detention and exploitation. The list is long."
The risk of disappearing
"There are different reasons for why people can be separated: Conflict, migration, natural disasters," Doutrelugne explained.
There are more than 35 active armed conflicts in Africa today. Thousands of people cross borders, the Sahara and the Mediterranean every year in search of safety. These journeys often entail great risks, including that of disappearance.
According to reports from the Institute for Security Studies, about 80% of missing persons come from 11 countries: Cameroon, DRC, Ivory Coast, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Sudan.
In Nigeria alone, more than 25,000 people are missing, including nearly 14,000 children — the highest number in Africa.
Nigeria established a registry for missing persons last year and said it has had some success in locating and reuniting them with their families.
Where should the search begin?
Many organizations provide tracing services for families who have been torn apart: The ICRC is active in 26 African countries, including what is now Congo, the Central African Republic, Eritrea, and Rwanda.
Save the Children has projects in over 30 African countries. Sometimes the result is reunification, sometimes it is clarification of what happened to a relative.
In its 2020 annual report, the ICRC stated that in Africa alone, it had facilitated 740,064 phone calls between families and reunited 874 people — including 788 children — with their families.
The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) or church groups such as the Salvation Army are also points of contact for tracing missing persons. Online services such as Trace the Face focus on those who have disappeared on the sea route to Europe.
A difficult search
It's a race against time: the longer a child or relative is separated from his or her family, the harder it is to locate them.
"It takes a global effort," Barke emphasized. "While most children are eventually reunited with their families, it can take several months or even years."
That's because there are major obstacles in the search, Doutrelugne said.
"You have to be able to search inside and outside the country or even the continent. People can be detained and not contact their families because of that. Or there are logistical problems: in many places, there is no internet connection, you have to go in person to search for the person. Access to areas is difficult due to infrastructure or conflict. People are scattered all over the continent, with no set destination. And they could be dead."
Knowing where to look
Three basic conditions are important for a successful reunification.
"First, preventing family separations in the first place by raising awareness so they understand the importance of keeping children connected to their families during displacement," Barke explained.
"Then, helping communities to identify children, as well as cross-border measures. And last, children need to be reunited with their families quickly, and that requires an incredible amount of collaboration and long-term investment: Human resources, technical, financial and operational capacity."
Doutrelugne is also hoping for support from the national authorities.
"It's important that families know where to look and which authorities to contact. Authorities in the countries need to coordinate and share information. Also, it must be possible to communicate with the family. So provide connectivity," the ICRC worker said.
After all, every little message and piece of information can mean that families torn apart and scattered across Africa can quickly be reunited with each other.
Edited by: Keith Walker
Author: Silja Fröhlich
First published: October 12, 2022
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