The following report outlines the findings of the ‘Families’ Needs Assessment’ (FNA) carried out by the ICRC from October 2014 to November 2015. It includes a detailed description of the needs of families of missing persons; the existing resources available to them (or lack thereof ), and their current coping mechanisms. It also includes the ICRC’s recommendations on how to respond to such needs. This report is published with the intention to support and facilitate the action in favour of missing persons and their families.
The ICRC’s focus on the issue of missing persons stems from the fact that the adoption of all possible measures to account for persons reported missing – as well as provision of information thereon – is an obligation imposed on states by IhL. Moreover, the experience of countries recovering from conflicts worldwide has shown that not resolving problems relating to the issue of missing persons and their families can pose a serious obstacle to reconciliation and act as an ongoing reminder of conflict for society as a whole. The ICRC believes it is therefore imperative that the fate of the persons missing in relation to the past armed conflict in Sri Lanka – and the needs of their families – be addressed in full.
The ICRC defines a missing person as a person whose whereabouts are unknown to his/her relatives and/or who, on the basis of reliable information, has been reported missing […] in connection with an international or non-international armed conflict, a situation of internal violence or disturbances.
This broad definition allows for inclusion of all persons who went unaccounted for in relation to the armed conflict, regardless of whether they were forcibly disappeared, are Missing in Action or are missing due to loss of contact with their families.
Families of missing persons face a constant emotional struggle incomparable to most other forms of grief. They suffer from a phenomenon known as ‘ambiguous loss’ – a form of grief that encompasses a psychological and social aspect. This prevents closure, causes constant vacillation between hope and despair, drives a constant search for knowledge of the exact circumstances of the disappearance, and affects families’ ability to restart their lives. The ICRC recognises the complex nature of this form of loss on the basis of years of experience working on the issue of missing persons and their families around the world.
The needs of the families of missing persons are as specific as their suffering. Therefore, the FNA was undertaken by the ICRC with the belief that a deeper understanding of these needs will allow the authorities and all actors involved to frame an adequate response.
The ICRC has been registering and resolving cases of persons reported as arrested, separated families and missing persons in connection with the past armed conflict in Sri Lanka since the establishment of its permanent presence in 1989. today, a caseload of over 16’000 missing persons, including over 5’100 security forces personnel Missing in Action, originating from all over Sri Lanka, remains unanswered. hence the ICRC’s decision to conduct the Assessment in all districts of the country.
The methodology of the Assessment included mixed methods of data collection – in order that the data is as representative and accurate as possible. These methods encompassed desk research prior to the execution of the Assessment (taking into account both internal and external sources); 395 semi-structured interviews (comprising a mix of closed and open-ended questions) with families of missing persons in all districts; 17 focus-group discussions in 11 different districts (to allow individuals to speak independently of their family members, and to focus on specific themes which rose out of the individual interviews); and, finally, meetings with key stakeholders (including government agencies, and members of civil society).
The needs of the families which were identified during the Assessment could be broadly categorised as follows: the need to know the fate and whereabouts of the missing person (as well as circumstantial information related to the disappearance); emotional, economic, and legal/administrative needs; and, finally, the need for acknowledgement and justice. The most pressing need – according to the majority of interviewed families of missing persons – is the need to know, followed by the need for economic assistance. The combination of the lack of answers on the fate of their missing relative(s) with pressing economic concerns creates psychological/psychosocial problems, which in turn account for the next most pressing need. In terms of action by the authorities, the majority of families believe that receiving answers on the fate of their relative(s) would resolve their problems, closely followed by financial assistance.
When asked about their beliefs regarding the possible fate of their missing relatives, of all the families interviewed, 36% believed their loved ones to be dead, 31% were convinced that they were still alive, and 33% expressed uncertainty. Regardless of their beliefs, a constant vacillation between hope and fear was recorded among all families; those who expressed the belief that their relatives were dead maintained the hope that they may still be alive, while those who believed that they were alive, still feared that their relatives might be dead. believing their missing relatives might be dead or being unsure of their fate, did not prevent the families from expressing a need to receive more detailed information from the authorities as to the fate and whereabouts of their missing relatives. Over two thirds of the interviewed families expressed such a need.
Seventy nine percent of the interviewed families also mentioned at least once the need for information on the location of buried human remains and/or to receive the identified remains of their relatives. understandably, all those who believed their missing relatives to be alive wanted to know where they are.
Ambiguous loss, which is caused by the uncertainty about the fate and whereabouts of their missing relatives, entails a state of perpetual suffering, in which the life of the families of missing persons is put on hold, freezing the natural grieving process and giving rise to feelings of frustration and helplessness. On the social level, this grief can lead to social isolation, a feeling of not being understood by friends or relatives, exclusion and even stigmatisation by the community. This suffering, when combined with economic, administrative and other stress-factors, is proven to lead to serious health problems, including anxiety and depression. These manifestations of ambiguous loss are indicative of social and relational problems; they are rooted in external factors which cause stress and ambiguity. Consequently, the families interviewed do not wish to receive the kind of counselling services which assume mental illness; of the 395 families interviewed, a mere 2% suggested that counselling could be useful. Conversely, 70% expressed the desire to talk about their missing relative with an understanding collocutor, and 75% expressed the need to participate in group commemorative events relating to their missing relatives. Although there are services available in many parts of Sri Lanka to help families deal with mental health problems, these are mostly geared towards psychiatric care and advice giving counselling, which is perceived by communities as service for the mentally ill, and fall short of adequate coverage and appropriateness of care for families suffering from ambiguous loss.
During the Assessment, statistics showed the correlation between ambiguous loss, economic difficulties and mental health issues faced by the families of missing persons. For example, out of 56% of all families that expressed economic difficulties, 86% showed symptoms of anxiety or depression.
The economic difficulties expressed by families of missing persons have their roots in a variety of factors; the loss of the breadwinner, destruction of property, negative impact of the conflict on business, and expenses related to the search for the missing person. The Assessment revealed that these factors lead to dire financial straits, which in turn creates spiralling debt, hinders the education of children, and generates difficulties with running the household. A high rate of unemployment (56%) was also recorded among all the families interviewed. The fact that in 93% of the families interviewed the missing relative was a male, meant that in most cases women were forced to take on the role of the breadwinner or else rely on the support of other male relatives. This phenomenon seemed to have much less effect on families of Missing in Action, since they are eligible for a range of government-sponsored compensation schemes.
The majority of the interviewed families reported that they face serious bureaucratic difficulties in the management of family assets registered under the name of the missing person. The fact that Sri Lankan law does not recognise the status of a person as ‘Missing’, obliges families to obtain a death certificate to carry out basic administrative tasks (e.g. access/close the bank account of the missing person, claim the monthly salary of the missing person deposited by the employer, or reclaim land owned by the missing person). Despite this situation, 66% of the interviewed families stated they had refused to accept a death certificate until the death is proven. Out of one third of interviewed families that had accepted a death certificate, almost half stated they would have preferred to have a ‘certificate of absence’ if it had been available. Families also reported other administrative problems in accessing benefit schemes such as a lack of clear information on who is eligible to which schemes, lack of response to applications, inability to provide necessary documentation etc. The Assessment also seemed to reveal an inconsistency between schemes available to families of those Missing in Action and those of other missing persons.
The families of missing persons have many of the needs that other victims of armed conflict have, but they attach distinctive priority to the need for information.
The need to know the fate and whereabouts of their missing relative evolves into other needs, including the need to know who should be held accountable for the disappearance of their relative. In the course of the Assessment, the ICRC did not ask specific questions on justice and accountability. however, these issues were spontaneously raised by the interviewed families during the course of the interviews.
Thirty four percent of them expressed the need for justice. Of these, the majority (17%) asked for reparative justice, while 11% asked for retributive justice, and 6% for both. The most frequently demanded form of reparative justice was financial assistance, but only if accompanied by acknowledgement of their suffering and difficulties on the part of the authorities, and not presented as simple financial compensation for the life of their loved one. twenty three percent of families asked for a form of acknowledgement by the authorities of their loss – whether symbolic (in the form of a monument, road name etc.), ceremonial, or otherwise (e.g. declaring a day of the Missing, public acknowledgement, conferring respect/privileges).
In conclusion, the Assessment revealed that the highest priority for the families is to know the fate and whereabouts of their missing relative(s), including circumstantial information related to the disappearance. The lack of information about the fate and whereabouts of their missing relatives emotionally exhausts the families and adversely affects their day-to-day functioning, including their ability to lead an economically sustainable life.
Therefore, while awaiting the clarification of the fate and whereabouts of their missing relatives, it is important to ensure that adequate services and benefits are made available to such families to address their economic and emotional needs. It was observed that the families who have benefitted from state services are demonstrably better able to cope with their situation caused by ambiguous loss. Legal and administrative factors also have to be addressed in supporting families to live with ambiguous loss while awaiting answers on the fate and whereabouts of their missing relatives. The adoption of a certificate of absence, that would legally recognise the status of their missing relative, without compelling the families to ‘decide’ on their fate with no proof, is a vital step to ease administrative/legal problems faced by the families. Finally, a formal acknowledgement by the authorities of the loss and suffering of these families, as well as taking appropriate steps to ensure accountability for the disappearance of their relative, would prove crucial steps in the achievement of lasting peace for both the missing persons and their families involved, and indeed for society as a whole.
The detailed list of ICRC recommendations on how best to address the multifaceted needs of the families is found in Section 6 of the report.
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