missing people

Inside Britain's Escalating Missing Persons Problem

With austerity widening society's cracks, the number of people reported missing in London alone has increased 77 percent since 2010.

by Francisco Garcia; illustrated by Ella Strickalnd de Souza
Mar 7 2019, 10:15pm

Illustration: Ella Strickland de Souza

They found the body on November 14, 2015. Two brothers stumbled on him in the middle of a dense forest at Pentrellyncymer, near Cerrigydrudion in North Wales, as they set up camp ahead of that year's Welsh GB motor rally racing event. Forensics showed he had died from blunt force trauma to the head, several years previously. He was in his 50s, maybe older, perhaps slightly younger. His nose had been fractured at some point, and his bones told you he had suffered from arthritis. They didn’t have a name—or anything else that could identify him, for that matter. And they never have, despite the subsequent urgency of police appeals.

The figure in the woods was just one of many thousands who go missing in the UK each year. People disappear all the time, for an impossible range of reasons. Some are planned, some are violent and unexpected. There are the solved cases and the files that stay open for years, or forever. Some are salacious and many are mundane. Some are solved and many aren’t. Some of the missing are alive, and some are dead. There are the abductions and killings, which grab our horrified attention. The unsolved, insoluble cases that become headlines. The names that become sagas, or ciphers for something else; the stories of Madeleine McCann and Suzy Lamplugh—cases that sustain their own cottage industry of wild speculation and grim intrigue.

And then there are the forgotten. The people who die without family, or anything to identify whoever it was they were and the lives they led. There are more of these kind of missing people every year, if the statistics are to be believed, though we don’t understand these figures as well as we could or should. In the UK, 180,000 people are reported missing every year. Someone goes missing every 90 seconds, according to figures compiled by the charity Missing People. One in 200 children will go missing, with that number standing at one in 500 for adults. Those numbers have risen in the last decade as round after round of austerity has emaciated the safety net of public services down to a trapeze wire. Drug and alcohol services, mental health provision, housing, stability of employment: nothing is what it was. Society’s cracks have widened, and the number of its lost have almost doubled. In London alone, the number of reported missing person cases has increased by 77 percent since 2010. A rate that one senior officer has labeled "unsustainable."

Everyone has their own personal vision of what a "missing person" is supposed to look like, though they can be anyone, at any time. I think about my father, a weedy spectral presence at the back of my mind, who disappeared for a time in the mid-1990s. He was a drunk and probably other things too. He vanished one night into the sprawl of south-east London. He turned up after six or so months—some of it spent on remand for a long forgotten crime—only to disappear again, back to his Spanish homeland at the turn of the millennium. No one is quite sure what happened to him at that point, though there was a letter in 2002, posted from a monastery. After that, nothing. He joined the legion of the vanished, though there may be someone who could now prove his fate.

Jacqueline Landy is a cemetery and crematorium manager at Lambeth Council, one of the major local authorities in south London. It's a difficult job, and one that she loves. It’s not something she ever meant to do, having fallen into it after college, though she can’t imagine doing anything else now.

The job encompasses many things, but a big part is taken up by overseeing the funerals of those who have died in the borough without any next of kin, or without any clues as to their identity. The last decade has seen the number of local authority funerals rise from 62 in 2010/2011 to 67 by the end of 2017/2018. "A rapid escalation is certainly something I’ve noticed," Jacqueline tells me. "Even if I [can’t be certain] if that’s due to austerity, or the cost of funerals, or whatever."

Landy’s team have the authority to enter homes to try to find the clues that will hopefully give some shape to the story of the deceased. Anything will do—an address book, a picture, any snatched fragment of correspondence. But it’s not so simple, even when someone relevant has been traced. They can be too estranged to care, or too poor—funeral costs often run to many thousands of dollars. And there is the rising numbers of unknown immigrants, often young men, who have died in an alien land, too far from home to be remembered.

"We take whatever information we can get, even if it's just a name and hopefully a date of death. We could have nothing at all. We then start our own investigation, talking to neighbors and friends, who maybe have some details to offer," says Jacqueline. "But what normally happens is that we’d engage a genealogy company, based on the information we hold. If it’s someone with a really common surname, James or Smith, then it could be that there are countless possibilities. But they’ll pore through the electoral register and try to see if there’s a wife or children to contact. It’s very important to me that we let any relevant people know when and where the funeral is to take place. And when we have exhausted those options, we start to arrange it.”

The council’s service is a simple affair that takes place early in the morning. It’s often the case that even families who have "abandoned the body" (when a distant next of kin has been identified but can’t, or won’t, take on the cost of payment) would like to be present, which means that attendance can sometimes be higher than expected. "We're quite flexible about it," says Jacqueline. "People have the right to say goodbye." A cremation—unless religious or cultural reasons have been found to forbid it—is followed by a few appropriate words.

There are others whose job is to search for the missing. It is slow, painstaking work, often marked by its failures rather than its successes. Joe Apps is operations manager at the UK Missing Persons Unit, based within the wider confines of the National Crime Agency. The former police officer has been there since the unit's formation in 2008, after it was set up to succeed a similar unit in London's Metropolitan Police. He tells me over the phone how the UK once led the way in the hunt for missing people, with the world’s first bureau set up in 1929; by 1994, every European nation had its own dedicated unit.

Their unit has three basic functions, Joe explains. "To take on both missing person and found person cases from local police forces; to add value to existing investigations by providing support and expertise; and to use the data we receive to draft an annual statistical report on the number of missing and found people, which is then published online as The Missing Persons Data Report."

Another part of the unit's work revolves around trying to match "found people" to the legions of the missing on file. These are the people who return, for whatever reason. "[The police] will often get in touch and ask if we have any found people on our records that match the description. We’ll look, but it’s not often we do. Usually it’s a dead person, or a person in hospital with amnesia, which we then have a higher success rate in matching," he tells me.

Joe works in a world of shadows; hunches, glimpses, and half clues to be pieced together in the hope of what? Providing reconciliation and closure to the lives of those touched by the disappeared. But underpinning it all is a simple moral issue, a duty toward the missing. When the records transferred over in 2008, they noticed around 800 unidentified people listed. That number has now been reduced to about 600, Joe says, 100 of whom are babies; fetuses, newborns, or infanticide victims. Another 100 are cases where a missing person abroad is thought to have a UK connection. The rest are outstanding warrants; dead bodies in the UK. "A number that is still far too high for our country and society," he adds quietly.

There are always bodies being found. Many appear to be suicide victims, a reflection of a climbing national suicide rate of over 5,000 a year, with a spike in the numbers around the Christmas and New Year period. "We are seeing a number of people reported missing who are then found as having taken their own lives. I don’t know if that’s a trend. From the news reporting, there seems to be more this year than last."

Though Joe broadly resists despair (there’s too much work to be done), there is still the sense that things are getting worse, all over. Part of it stems from the assault on public services. Things are hard right now, and getting harder with seemingly endless lacerations to the welfare safety net since 2010. Mental health services have shouldered huge cuts, with the number of specialist nurses in the NHS having dropped from 46,155 to 39,358 since 2009, and the number of hospital beds for people experiencing acute mental illness plummeting by 30 percent over the same time. Data from Missing People shows that both diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health issues are present in up to eight in ten of the UK’s missing adults.

"When you get to 18, accessing mental health support becomes extremely difficult. The budgets aren't ring fenced for services or adult social care. There’s an all-party parliamentary group run by the MP Ann Cofe," Joe explains. "They try to ask the question: 'What is the support like for someone that returns from a missing episode?' We’ve only really got anecdotal evidence, but a very difficult picture emerges for people trying to access services they need." Joe is clear on how strongly he believes that the way we support our vulnerable people is a mark of our society’s general health. "We relied on well-funded services through local authorities," he adds with a sigh. "With them being stripped back, we’ll start to notice more and more people slipping through the gaps."

We all know the old cliché about the devastation that two missed pay checks can wreck. None of us are as far from the cliff edge as we think, or care to admit. A matter of weeks. That’s all it takes for things to go desperately wrong. Those without family or dependable social networks are the most susceptible. Housing is also a key factor, and it is in crisis, as everyone seems to now acknowledge. It’s one of the key issues that has animated Maeve McClenaghan, an award winning investigative journalist with The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, who worked on Dying Homeless, TBIJ’s year-long campaign to chart the number of homeless deaths in the UK.

Maeve started working on the project in early 2018, just after wrapping up a long investigation into domestic violence refuges, she tells me over the phone. Both brought up questions around housing and vulnerable people. There were a slew of news reports honing in on a few particular deaths, including Marcos Amaral Gourgel outside the Houses of Parliament in February of 2018. That presented what she thought must be a simple question: If the number of homeless people has shot up in the years since 2009, then had the number of deaths related to homelessness?

The answer ended up being a lot more complicated than Maeve, or anyone else, had initially thought. At first, no one could give a straight answer. The coroner’s office would ask her to try the police, who would tell her to try the council, who would pass her on to the coroner’s office. The looping round continued, until it suddenly dawned on her that no one knew because nobody had bothered to keep count. "There has been a consistent degradation of the safety net. People have to be in an absolute crisis before they access mental health services, though I was speaking to a woman who has been in acute crises and couldn’t get the support she needed. The lack of social housing is of course an issue, but so is the massive increase in private rents, while housing benefit has stayed low."

The Bureau spoke with homelessness charities and organizations, journalists, healthcare professionals, and people from all over the country, and uncovered many half-forgotten tragedies. The 51-year-old man who had killed himself the day before his temporary accommodation ran out, a grandmother found dead in a parking lot, and a man who was tipped into a garbage truck while he slept; 449 deaths in 12 months, a rate of more than one a day. The message of the state’s inertia seemed clear enough: some lives, and deaths, deserve more dignity than others.

I live in walking distance of Nunhead Cemetery, in south east London. It’s a good place to break up the day for a walk, or whatever. One of the city’s seven "magnificent cemeteries" built as a Victorian solution to the overcrowding that had swamped London’s parish burial grounds. You find all sorts of oddness and extravagance here; ornate mausoleums for the 19th century's wealthy, intermingled with modest stones and markers of remembrance.

This was an unruly place in the recent past, even though the bodies kept coming. Half derelict and sad, as the money for its upkeep dribbled away and people’s interest waned. The last decade or so has witnessed a revival, led by local residents and a coterie of sympathetic patrons who did the dirty work required to clean it up and restore some of the lost dignity.

You can spend hours here, if you like, scouring the inscriptions or gawking at the most overbearing stone work. There are a couple of spots on the fringes of the woods where the overgrowth is denser and the tombstones more ravaged by time and neglect. Where the lettering is harder to read, the names that bit more obscure. The imagination stirs a bit, at the forgotten lives below and all the stories you could craft for them. But it’s not too long until my thoughts drift to another nameless body; of the man found battered and torn in the woodlands of North Wales.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Follow Francisco Garcia on Twitter.