Missing persons are people whose current whereabouts and health status are unknown, at least to the general public and their loved ones, and whose disappearance has been reported to law enforcement authorities. People may go missing for a variety of reasons, which may be voluntary or involuntary and innocent or sinister.
By far the most common reason a person is reported missing is kidnapping, particularly of children under the age of six. According to Child Find of America, up to 2,300 children are reported missing every day in the US. In the vast majority of these cases, the kidnapper is a parent but not the child's legal guardian and abducts the child from their legal guardian, such as an estranged spouse or foster home. In such cases, the child is frequently recovered safely.
Per-country data on missing persons leaves much to be desired. Many countries have differing definitions of what qualifies as a missing person, which can make data difficult to compare. Moreover, simply obtaining data can be challenging. In order to generate a complete picture of a given country's missing persons, a wide range of data points must be compiled, including not only kidnappings per country but possible forced disappearances, accidental disappearances, deliberate disappearances, and more. This complexity creates a logistical challenge even when the data exists, but many of these data points may not be readily collected by a given country.
Another factor is the effectiveness of local and national law enforcement. Countries like the United States, Belgium, and Denmark have quite effective and comprehensive systems in place for the reporting of missing persons. However, in other countries with less robust reporting systems, the number of missing persons may be under-reported because the systems are less robust or more difficult to use.
Population must also be taken into account. In regard to population, the United States has the third-largest population of any country in the world, so the total number of missing persons in the US is typically much higher than the total number of missing persons in a country that has a much smaller population, but a higher rate of missing persons. To compensate for this concern and enable more effective country-to-country comparisons, missing persons data is often expressed in terms of the number of missing persons per 100,000 residents in the population. Many of the other concerns listed above, however, lack a similarly simple solution.
The United States has what may be the world's highest number of missing persons. According to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) Missing Person and Unidentified Person Files for the 2021 operational year, 521,705 people were reported missing in 2021. Moreover, 93,718 of those people remained actively missing at the start of 2022. The fact that the United States has the third-highest population in the world likely contributes to its high number of missing persons, as does the fact that the country's law enforcement agencies take missing persons reports seriously and are well equipped to act upon them and locate individuals reported as missing.
Another of the world's most populous countries, India has a worrying number of cases of missing persons. Statistics show that 88 women, kids, and men go missing by the hour, 2,130 people go missing every day, and 64,851 people every month. According to India’s National Crime Rate Bureau (NCRB) data, the provinces of West Bengal, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan have the highest number of missing persons.
Statistics show that roughly 180,000 people go missing in the UK every year. This number is believed to be a significant underestimate, as 353,000 files of missing persons are opened every year. As in most countries, the majority of missing persons are children, the majority of whom (80% of them in the case of the UK) are located within 24 hours of the filing of a missing persons report.
The war-torn country of Syria has long been mired in a violent civil war that has seen many Syrian citizens disappear. Armed opposition groups detain some individuals, and others have been subjected to forced disappearances. In 2019, Syria recorded one of the highest numbers of missing persons (100,000) in the world due to the ongoing conflict.
One of the most dangerous countries in South America, Colombia was once given the unofficial nickname "The Kidnapping Capital of the World". The problem can be traced to the 1970s, when drug cartels and guerrilla groups like the M-19 used kidnapping to extort money from victims. Decades later, the country is still wrought with conflict as armed groups use kidnappings to foster fear among civilians in a bid to maintain control. According to the Department of Arauca, a person was reported missing every three days in Colombia in 2020.
According to Mexico’s national register, more than 100,000 people have been reported missing over the last two years (2020-2022). Many missing persons in Mexico are victims of violence associated with organized crime. Mexico's actual number of missing persons is likely much higher than its official number, as many abductions go unreported because victims fear the repercussions of involving the authorities.
The West African country Nigeria is known as a kidnapping hotspot. Nigeria recorded 3,000 missing people in the first half of 2021, and 571 kidnappings in January 2022 alone. Kidnapping is quite common in Nigeria, and victims may be chosen at random or specifically targeted. Kidnapping in Nigeria has many causes. Militants and bandits often kidnap people (often wealthy businessmen, but sometimes school children or common civilians) for ransom to help fund their activities or force the government to give in to specific demands. Moreover, cultists, ritual killers, and common criminals may kidnap people for purposes including organ harvesting operations, ritual sacrifices, and illicit adoption schemes.
The United States has the highest number of missing persons, with 521,705 people reported missing in 2021.