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Thousands Missing in Mozambique Following Cyclone Idai

Urgent Need for System to Locate, Reunify Families

Residents of Buzi District, in Sofala province, Mozambique, wait on rooftops for rescue teams after Cyclone Idai, March 19, 2019. © 2019 INGC

Strong winds, heavy rains, and massive flooding caused by Cyclone Idai two weeks ago have left a trail of destruction in central Mozambique, on a scale that won’t be known until the rain waters recede. But it’s already known that since March 14, when the cyclone made landfall, more than 500 people have died and at least 1400 more are being treated for cholera.

As the authorities and the United Nations, Red Cross, and other humanitarian agencies struggle to accommodate more than 146,000 displaced people, a new problem has emerged: thousands of people are missing. Many people in accommodation centers told the media of losing relatives as they fled the rising flood waters. One woman explained that she couldn’t find her husband, her mother, and her six siblings. An 8-year-old girl told local television that the last time she saw her parents and two siblings was when they left her on a rooftop from which she was later rescued.

Many of the missing may have found shelter in one of 155 displaced persons sites across Sofala, Manica, Zambezia, and Tete provinces. Others could have returned to their villages when the rain stopped.

The Red Cross, which has experience finding people missing in connection with conflicts, natural disasters, and migration, has set up a website to help people in affected areas of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. But more will be needed to be done to track down the thousands of people who remain unaccounted for.

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provide that governments should “endeavor to establish the fate and whereabouts” of people reported missing and cooperate with international agencies involved in this task. The authorities also need to inform relatives “on the progress of the investigation and notify them of any result.”  

The Mozambican government should urgently establish a national database of missing people to help families identify and locate their relatives. And they should move swiftly and effectively to engage with survivors, community leaders, and international partners to ensure that these vital family links are restored.

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