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Syria: How the UN plans to find over 100,000 missing people

September 20, 2022

The UN is considering a new, international organization to help look for over 100,000 Syrians still missing in that country's civil war. How likely is it, this helps families finally reunite with their lost loved ones?

Families of Syrian detainees carrying photos of their detained the missing loved ones, as they demanding their freedom and the revealing of their fate and whereabouts during a sit-in in Berlin, Germany
Families of missing people have long called for a new organization to help find relativesImage: Wafaa Mustafa/AP Photo/picture alliance

This week marks a decade since Fadwa Mahmoud's husband and son went missing.

"Do you have any idea the pain we suffer every minute of every day since we lost them?" Mahmoud, a Syrian woman now living in Berlin, told DW. "Ten years with no news. I just need to know if they are dead or alive."

Her husband, Abdul-Aziz al-Khair, and son, Maher, disappeared after Maher went to Damascus airport to pick up his father on September 20, 2012. Al-Khair was a member of the opposition to the government of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and was likely detained by intelligence agents. His 34-year-old son and another opposition member, Eyas Ayyash, were also detained.

The men are among an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 Syrians who have gone missing during the country's civil war, which began in 2011 during the so-called Arab Spring, after peaceful anti-government demonstrations were brutally repressed.

"Evidence suggests that the Syrian regime maintains a detailed bureaucracy ... with regard to those it has detained," the United Nations has said. But "Syrian regime forces continue to deliberately conceal the fate and whereabouts of forcibly disappeared persons."

Mahmoud stands in front of a German court holding photos of her son and husband
Fadwa Mahmoud last heard from her husband and son 10 years agoImage: Thomas Frey/dpa/dpa Pool/picture alliance

They may have been detained inside government prisons, tortured or killed, or they could also have been kidnapped by one of various militias that got involved in the fighting later.

They may still be alive. For example, in 2018, the Syrian government issued death certificates for hundreds of people known to have been detained. Later, some of the people certified dead were found alive.

"Myself and other families of the disappeared have been campaigning for international support, for some kind of way to get answers," said Mahmoud, who helped found Families for Freedom, an advocacy group that works toward freeing and tracing Syrians who are still missing. This has included calling for "an institution whose role it is to specifically look at this issue," she said.

'Simplify and centralize'

At the end of August, the Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General issued a report recommending something exactly like this, a new "independent mechanism" that could assist in the search for the missing people.

The UN report and other studies make a number of recommendations for possible tasks, but, principally, any new organization would act as a central hub for information on disappeared Syrians.

"There is a need for a visible and accessible 'one-stop-shop' process ... to simplify and centralise the search process," a 2021 study published by the Netherlands-based organization Impunity Watch argued.

Several women sit on cobblestones holding pictures of men and signs urging action
Syrian woman Sedra Alshehabi with a picture of her missing father at a Berlin protestImage: Christian Mang/REUTERS

"There are so many people who have been disappeared and have been in the prison system," Jeremy Sarkin, a professor at Nova University in Lisbon, Portugal, and the author of the report, told DW.

"You have documents and testimony that's never been collected, or not used for a humanitarian purpose," said Sarkin, who also wrote the 2021 book "The Conflict in Syria and the Failure of International Law to Protect People Globally." He said this plethora of information was also why the full cooperation of Syria's government wouldn't be necessary for the new organization to be successful. 

Bringing agencies together

There are a number of different bodies that work on registering missing Syrians. That includes advocacy groups such as Mahmoud's, which do a lot of research privately, and organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, which gets limited access to prisoners in Syrian jails.

A man reacts as he looks at a gruesome collection of images of dead bodies taken by a photographer who has been identified by the code name "Caesar."
Families used smuggled pictures of tortured and dead Syrians to find missing relativesImage: Lucas Jackson/REUTERS

The UN's International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, or IIIM, which works on Syrian issues, also keeps a database of crimes committed there. And the International Commission on Missing Persons also has a Syria file.

"Family members are having to look through their social media feeds to see if they can find a husband or brother or whomever they have lost," said Anne Massagee, the deputy representative for Syria for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, based in Lebanon. "The question is: How can we help them so that the process doesn't require them to knock on the doors of 12 different institutions, or have to look through grotesque videos that just re-traumatize them?"

As well as bringing all the different bodies doing this work together, the new mechanism would also provide more general support to families. This would include things like advice on how to deal with the extortion attempts they often run into as they try to find out what happened to detainees, or assisting with issues that arise when the state-recognized head of a household has disappeared and the status of property or custody of children is unclear.

The new body would also deal transparently with all actors in the Syrian conflict, including the government, because, as Massagee noted, "there are victims from all sides."

Syrians still being disappeared

News of the UN's recommendation was welcomed by Syrian activists who have lobbied for just such a thing. "Establishing such a mechanism would be a significant breakthrough after years of silence and inaction," said Sara Hashash, communications director with the advocacy organization, The Syria Campaign. "It offers families a glimmer of hope. But, as with any such move, the proof will be in the pudding."

And there are still some critical issues to consider, Hashash and others said.

Demonstrators carry Syria revolution flags and demand the overthrow of the regime
A 2018 demonstration in Idlib, which isn't controlled by Syria's government, called for prisoners to be releasedImage: Juma Muhammad/ZUMAPRESS.com/picture alliance

For one, Sarkin said, the UN process should be faster: "I hope the political will is there for that."

Other cases with fewer missing people, such as in Cyprus in the 1970s, remain unresolved decades later. And people are still going missing in Syria. A report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights counted 139 enforced disappearances carried out by various groups in August. The majority came after arbitrary arrests by government forces.

Sarkin, who has written extensively on Syria's missing, said there should be more focus on the people who are likely still alive, probably in terrible conditions, possibly being tortured.

"They remain in imminent danger," he said. "My interest would be in saving their lives. If that sort of information was released, we would be sending a signal to the Syrian state that: We know you have them — and we demand that the state protects them and the ICRC gets access."

Paris: A large red bus bears the photos of disappeared Syrians; a woman stands in front
The Families for Freedom group have held demonstrations around EuropeImage: Christophe Petit Tesson/MAXPPP/dpa/picture alliance

But perhaps the most important question for Fadwa Mahmoud and other Syrians like her is this: Will this new "independent mechanism" finally help them find their loved ones?

"After years of living with uncertainty, it is certainly hard to believe that we will get answers," Mahmoud said. "But we have to have hope and faith," she added. "We have to keep going, to make sure that our loved ones are not allowed to disappear without a trace."