By David Hennessy
At least 16 people are reported missing in Ireland every day.
Most are eventually found but a growing number are unaccounted for. Causes range from family rows to mental illness to simply forgetting to make contact.
Many of those who go missing end up living in this country– some living ordinary and uneventful lives, some living on the streets and some, in a few sinister cases, never to be heard of again.
In an attempt to help the families of the 4,000 people a year reported missing Ireland this week held its first ever national day dedicated to missing persons.
Ireland’s Justice Minister Alan Shatter and the head of Ireland’s police force Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan joined family and friends of the missing persons at Farmleigh House in Dublin on Wednesday to mark the inaugural Forget Me Not day for Missing Persons in Ireland.
According to official figures and reports 4,000 people go missing in Ireland every year. Ireland’s police service the Garda Siochana receives 8,000 reports a year (some people repeatedly go missing). Of the roughly 8,000 reports made to the Gardai in 2012, most were quickly located but 96 are still missing. Of these, 57 were adults and 39 were under 18 years of age. Of all those reported missing in the ten years between 2002- 2012 at least 550 remain missing today.
Reasons for going missing are varied and range from a simple desire to start all over again to escaping difficulties with finances or family that can be either real or imagined. Mental health issues can also be causes of disappearances. Others simply forget to make contact. If families receive no indication from them, they are resigned to a life of uncertainty, unable to know if they should even be mourning.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter said he hoped it might be possible to extend the initiative across Europe: “The circumstances of each missing persons case is unique in its own way, but the heartbreak and enduring impact for family and friends is universal. I am honoured to join with the families affected by these tragic circumstances for this important inaugural event.
“I also believe there is scope for developing this national initiative beyond Ireland and have recently proposed to my EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministerial colleagues that consideration be given to introducing
a ‘European Missing Persons Day’. Such an event would recognise the significance of this issue across Europe and promote further collaboration between Member States in the exchange of experience and
good practice in this area.”
David Linehan, Search Co- Ordinator of Cork City Search and Rescue (formerly the National Missing Persons Helpline) told The Irish World: “Education could play a big part. 4,000 0f the missing persons reports filed with the Gardai each year concern minors. We’ve all done it, gone out, had a few pints, stayed out but the young people don’t realise the trauma it’s causing to their families. Their families become concerned, they’re going to go to the gardai, they’re going to report them missing.
“Say I’m 16, 17 years old, I’m not supposed to be drinking: I call up to the boys’ house, I have a few pints, I’m afraid to go home so I’m afraid to ring home. From a parent’s perspective, I would rather have the phone call off my child to say ‘I’m after having a drink there, I’m staying in so and so’s house, I’ll be home in the morning’.
“With missing people, you have high risk, medium risk and low risk. Low risk would be the people who just stayed out, didn’t want to come home and the chances are they will make contact back home but the Gardai’s time and voluntary search groups, their time is actually being spent trying to make contact with these people as well. While their time and resources are being put into looking for low risk cases, that’s actually taking some of the resources from the high risk cases.
“The vast majority of missing people in any jurisdiction know they’ve been reported missing, people are searching for them but they choose to remain missing but by doing that, they’re interfering with the resources being put into finding people who are in a position to make contact themselves.
“Because they’re over the age of 18, it’s their right to go missing if they want. They have the right to privacy but what we would say to that is if you want to go missing, you don’t have to let anyone know where you are but ring somebody to let them know you’re okay. That way the gardai can stop looking for them and the resources can be used to search for someone who might be after falling.”
Students The initiative has its origins in the work of teachers and students of Davis College, Mallow, Co. Cork who since 2011 have campaigned for a day to commemorate those who have gone missing and recognise the lasting trauma for their families and friends.
The Forget Me Not campaign began as a transition year Young Social Innovators project but the subject matter moved all involved to take the issue much further. They have produced a poster campaign supported by Cork, Shannon, Farranfore and Knock airports, Irish Ferries and Stena Line, targeting exit points in order to try and reach people leaving the country and encourage them to let someone know where they are going. Funds from the sale of their calendars went towards recovering the body of a missing Galway teenager earlier this year. Meeting with relatives of missing people, the students found that the families often felt forgotten about with missing person cases hard to keep in the news. The students have been supported by President Michael D Higgins.
Kathy Kilgallon, who leads the project with colleague Siobhan Murray, told The Irish World: “It started as a project to make the school proud and very early in the process, we met the families and it just became about something else for us.
“It was the story of Madeleine McCann that was the initial inspiration because it was a prominent missing person in their lifetime and Kate McCann was very supportive of what we were doing. We investigated other cases around the country. It brought the whole issue to life and we developed such a strong empathy for families of missing people.
“Sometimes they would just want a chat. That was very evident, the loneliness that goes along with it and the fact that everybody is supportive of you initially but then over time people move on with their lives and the media moves on. We felt like they really needed a platform and we started with the calendar initially and then we wanted something more concrete that would last and endure through the years and that’s how we came up with the idea of a national missing person’s day.
“We hope that on that day at least that they do know that the whole country is listening, that the media supports them and they have that moment to talk about their daughter or their son or their brother, sister or friend and they just know there is support there. Unfortunately some people might never find an answer but at least if they know they have that support.”