The Red Cross is being inundated with requests from the families of refugees and migrants who have gone missing in the Middle East.
Gilles Carbonnier, vice president of the International Committee for the Red Cross, said his organisation had received many thousands of “trace requests” for refugees and migrants who had gone missing after fleeing conflict zones in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Speaking to The National on the second day of the Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development conference, or Dihad, Prof Carbonnier said that major investment is required to ensure that vulnerable migrants and refugees are not taken advantage of by human traffickers.
“There are many thousands of people who are asking us to trace people who have gone missing in conflict zones,” said Mr Carbonnier, who added that a significant amount of the requests received were from the Middle East.
“A lot of families have missing members due to armed conflict, whose fates are not clear.”
Prof Carbonnier said that the real work for humanitarian agencies begins when the “guns go silent”.
Families continue to suffer from the impact of armed conflict, he said, with almost 70 million people displaced across the globe, according to UNHCR estimates.
The Middle Eastern population had been particularly hurt by the fallout from violence, he said.
The fighting in Syria has resulted in more than five million people leaving the country since 2011, while a further 6.7 million are said to be displaced internally. There are also many Syrians displaced in Iraq.
“A lot of families have even lost connection with their mothers, fathers and children in some instances,” he said.
“What you are seeing in east Syria on the border with Iraq is a lot of unaccompanied children gathering in camps, many of them are under the age of 8.
“One colleague told me he had encountered an 8-year-old at a camp who was refusing to eat until we found his mother.”
Prof Carbonnier said that the ICRC was using facial recognition technology to try to find matches in its database with pictures of missing people, provided by concerned loved ones.
The trauma of being separated from loved ones was causing untold damage to the mental health of the affected families, he added, especially on children, as does the trauma caused by being exposed to high levels of violence and the protracted nature of the conflict in Syria.
“There are invisible mental scars … this needs to be given priority and there needs to be psychological support offered to the victims.”
Prof Carbonnier went on to urge the need for further substantial investment from both governments across the world and the private sector.
“Rebuilding is of the essence and we need to do our utmost to restore and maintain essential services, such as water pumping stations and wastewater treatment,” he said.
“We also have to restore health systems in affected countries and it is important that we get the required investment in this area.”
The millions of displaced people across the Middle East are additionally vulnerable to being exploited by human traffickers. People can end up in the sex trade, while others are taken as hostages with the kidnappers demanding ransoms for their release.
“The kidnappers hand the victim a satellite phone to contact their families back home and plead for money to be sent in return for their release. The treatment the victims receive is appalling," he said.
It is not uncommon for displaced people from the Middle East to end up all over the world as they travelled far and wide to seek refuge.
Prof Carbonnier insisted that the international community needed to put basic human decency at the top of its agenda.
“We must not sacrifice humanity on the altar of short-term identity politics,” he said, during a keynote speech at the conference.
“We need to focus on the needs and vulnerabilities of the people affected rather than debating status.”
The humanitarian also praised the UAE for its efforts in highlighting humanitarian issues.
“The UAE has really raised its profile in recent years by not only engaging in regional humanitarian issues, but globally as well,” he said.