What Actually Happens When Someone Goes Missing in the UK?

Hundreds of thousands of people are reported missing every year, but most of us know very little about what happens next.

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26 February 2016, 6:00am

A missing person poster in Ireland (Photo by William Murphy via)

Last year, 137,146 people were reported missing in the UK. While we might see many of their faces posted to Facebook or in the back pages of local newspapers, it can be all too easy to look straight through them.

The plight of missing people remains something most of us know very little about – an issue that throws up many more questions than answers. How do so many people simply disappear? What does attempting to track someone down actually entail? And, most importantly, how many missing people are found?

Although nearly 140,000 people were reported missing last year, the real number is thought to be considerably higher. This is because many incidents go unreported. According to the charity Missing People, which is supported by players of the People's Postcode Lottery, an estimated 250,000 go missing every year. While the majority of these cases are quickly resolved, they say, an estimated 2,500 people remain untraced for over a year after they first disappear.

The circumstances that lead to people vanishing are manifold, but research conducted by Missing People found that up to 80 percent of missing persons cases involve someone believed to suffer from mental health problems. Of course, it's rare that these cases gain any kind of national attention – broadly speaking, it tends to be attractive white women who make the headlines.

Anthony Stammers, 30, is one of thousands of Britons currently classed as missing. He left his home in Mile End Road, Colchester, on the 27th of May, 2012, and has not been seen since. "He went missing the day before his grandfather's funeral. It massively took us by surprise," explains his mother Julie Stammers. "He was very close to his granddad. He was holding hands with him when he passed away. I think maybe it was a catalyst."

Having moved back home after finishing university, Stammers had been living with his family for five years. "He'd been suffering from depression for two or three years," says Julie. "He'd been looking for a job and had written off for 120 jobs over the couple of years."

Although Stammers distanced himself from friends in the months before he left, he remained close to family throughout. "Anthony is a very family orientated person," says Julie. "But maybe he's gone because he felt a burden because he didn't have a job. He hates to be beholden to anyone."

Every day is plagued with uncertainty for Anthony's family. "It's just soul destroying, because you have all these questions in your head – questions that can't be answered," says Julie. "I do go through some very dark moments. Some nights I don't sleep at all. Mornings are my worst. I get up and have a good old cry, and lock myself in the bathroom with the taps running so no one can hear."

The anxiety, understandably, has had a knock-on effect on how Julie and her husband now lives their lives. "We won't go away for long periods of time for holidays, and I won't change my hairstyle much in case he doesn't recognise me walking along the road," she explains. "It might sound silly to other people, but we kept getting our car repaired every single week because we didn't want to replace it in case he didn't recognise it in the driveway or at a set of lights. In the end we had to replace it."

The police spend 14 percent of their time searching for missing people. Joe Apps, manager of the National Crime Agency's Missing Persons Bureau, told the BBC in 2012 that the bureau – using data from 3,000 previous cases – can make informed assumptions about a missing person's whereabouts, taking into account their age and gender.

"In terms of 15 to 16-year-olds, 30 percent came back to where they'd started from without any police intervention. Just under 30 percent went to friends' houses, and 14 percent were found walking the street," he told the BBC. "In terms of distance travelled, 80 percent of them were found within 40 km. So it just tells you that 'missing' is a very local issue. They are most likely to be found very close by."

Although the police have carried out numerous searches for Anthony Stammers, nothing has been found.

"Essex and Colchester police have been so good," says Julie. "We've had no bad news, so we have to be positive. None of his personal belongings have been found. His passport's still here. But it's not impossible to get anywhere in the world. He could have got on a boat. There are ways of getting round things. He could use a different name and get a different national insurance number or do cash in hand. We all love him to bits and are waiting for the day he comes home."

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When months turn into years, the family and friends of missing people are left living in limbo, experiencing what is termed as "ambiguous loss". Karen Robinson, the head of Partnerships at Missing People, has dealt with dozens of missing person cases. In turn, she has witnessed the destruction and trauma it wreaks for those left behind.

"There's been research into the particular trauma faced by families missing someone. They are unable to grieve," explains Robinson. "As human beings, we emotionally need closure on things, and grief doesn't start until we know for certain that somebody has died. In the absence of a body being found, it's really common for families to remain in that painful limbo."

To put that into perspective: according to a 2011 study by Missing People, between 0.6 percent and 1 percent of all missing person cases reported to the police end in the missing person being found dead.

"In some cases, this is because they have been out of touch for a long time and have died of natural causes before contact was re-established," reads the report. "In other cases, this is because the missing person has become a victim of homicide, or has committed suicide, and may have been reported missing after their death, but before their body was discovered. Research suggests that the risk of being found dead is higher for adults than for young people, and the risk increases with age."

Nobody wants to hear that their loved one has died, of course – but equally, the fact that, in 99 percent of cases, people are left with no clear answer either way gives an indication of just how many people are left in the dark. And as if the emotional trauma wasn't bad enough, those left behind can also be thrust into a financial mess; if your relative goes missing, you're legally prohibited from stopping their direct debits. Their car insurance, mortgage, phone contract or gym membership payments will continue to seep out of their account every month.

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As well as working in partnership with police forces to track people down, Missing People also provides vital support to those affected. "The charity is here 24 hours a day to support anyone who is missing, thinking about running away or the loved ones left behind," Robinson explains. "We're the neutral bridge between the person and the police."

The charity contacts a total of 20,000 missing people by text message each year. "It generates lots of contact back from those missing people, who then use us as a confidential space to explore their options," she says. "We won't tell you what to do. We pass messages like, 'I want to let you know that I'm thinking of you. I'm just not ready to see you yet.' We also do three way calls."

The most affecting cases Robinson mentions are those where people have become so isolated that they don't even realise someone is missing them. "Some people don't realise they are missing because they might have drifted out of contact with their loved ones," she says. "So actually learning that they've been reported missing and somebody is concerned for them might actually be a prompt for them to reconnect."

Nevertheless, it remains immensely difficult for missing people to get back in touch with family and friends. "The longer you're away, the harder it becomes to say to the people that you love, 'This is where I've been and why,'" Robinson explains. "If you didn't go home tonight, how would you explain tomorrow where you were and what you did, and how would you explain after two nights and after a week?"

Interestingly, research has shown that those who go missing make a series of short-term rash decisions. "They might decide, 'I can't take this any more, I'm leaving,' with no intention of staying away for a long period of time, rather than making a calculated plan to leave," says Robinson.

Many adults who remain missing for over a year will never return. While it's not unknown for people to come home – even after ten or 20 years – statistically speaking, the longer a person is missing, the less likely it is that they'll be found or that they'll reconnect with family or friends.

The acute anxiety and uncertainty experienced by the people left behind doesn't bear thinking about. At what stage do you choose to stop going over and over the days and weeks before they disappeared? And is it possible to ever fully give up hope until a body is found? Britain might be the most spied on country in the world – one CCTV camera per every 11 people, to be exact – but there are still many who manage to slip away.

@MayaOppenheim

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