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"A search can take minutes. And sometimes years"

At the beginning of this week, public searches for missing persons increased.

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"A search can take minutes. And sometimes years"

At the beginning of this week, public searches for missing persons increased. The search was for Liudas K., 37, who simply left the hospital. After Liudmyla B., 66, who disappeared without urgent medication. And after 14-year-old Olivia P., who did not return to her parents' apartment. In all cases, photos of the wanted persons were published.

The police counted 26 current missing persons cases last Wednesday. Cases where people went missing for days or weeks but no longer than a month. But what happens when people go missing? How quickly are they usually found again? "A missing person search can take minutes. And sometimes even years,” says Bärbel Müller. The 57-year-old leads subject area 442 in the State Criminal Police Office (LKA), responsible for unsolved violent crimes, so-called cold cases, and long-term missing persons.

Müller knows that missing person statistics are fleeting: According to the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), up to 300 missing person reports are filed nationwide every day. But about the same number is also deleted again because a case is solved. Nationwide, there were almost 9,300 missing persons on the New Year's day. About half could be cleared up in the first week, they say, 80 percent within a month. Only three percent of all missing people should not be back after a year.

Müller's seven-man unit only takes on a case if the first search measures have not been successful. This point is reached in adults when they have disappeared for more than four weeks, in adolescents after ten days, in children after 72 hours. The unit is currently handling 221 long-term missing persons. The oldest is from 1972. Such cases have been reviewed again and again for over 30 years, only then can they be removed from the statistics.

People who are missing a relative usually turn to a police station, says Müller. The notification then goes first to the responsible LKA 1, which coordinates the first measures. "The range of our measures is enormous," no two cases are the same. A manhunt would be launched immediately for a three-year-old who disappeared from the playground. With a 16-year-old who wants to get away from his parents, you probably first look for friends and known contact addresses.

Basically, every adult can decide for himself where he wants to live and who he informs about it. Adults are considered missing who leave their usual circle of life, whose whereabouts are unknown and for whom a danger to life or limb is also assumed. In the case of minors who do not have their own right to determine their whereabouts, one assumes that they are in danger if one does not know where they are.

"We do everything that offers even the smallest chance," says Müller. However, her team always gets to the point “where you hope that something will come from outside”. Because the person is seen, because contact can be made, or because a body is found. In 2018, for example, Scotsman Liam Colgan disappeared after a bachelor party in Hamburg. After a month and a half of searching, mainly by friends and acquaintances, his body was discovered in the Elbe.

In September, the police presented the “Paul Schulz” case on the ZDF program “Aktenzeichen XY … unsolved”. "We have no theory as to what could have happened," says Müller. The 79-year-old went to a play in 2015 and chose a different route than his wife on the way back by bike. He never got home. "The program brought few clues," says Müller, "but none of them helped us."

Hilal Ercan is one such case. The ten-year-old disappeared in 1999. It is the only long-missing child in Hamburg. Investigators have long assumed that he was the victim of a crime. But a body was never found, despite new attempts in the recent past. According to the BKA, around half of all missing children and young people.

"But in the very rarest of cases, there is a criminal offense behind it," says Lars Bruhns from the Hamburg initiative "Missing Children". The reasons are more to be found in problems with school or parents or heartbreak. "A case like Hilal is the absolute exception."

The initiative looks after "116 000", the Europe-wide hotline for missing children. She receives almost 10,000 calls a year, says Bruhns. The initiative advises and supports affected families. According to the BKA, around 16,600 children and 76,700 young people were missing throughout Germany in the course of 2022. The clearance rate is 97 percent or more. 1700 cases are considered unsolved - half of these children are unaccompanied refugees.

The initiative is fighting to ensure that missing persons cases are published more quickly and also distributed via "Cell Broadcast", the new disaster alarm system for mobile phones. "Most of the other European countries are much further along," says Bruhns. "The first few minutes and hours count most of all in order to get as many clues as possible."

Even if the investigators themselves would like to create more publicity in some cases - it is not the police themselves who decide on a public search, but always a judge, says investigator Müller, since personal rights are affected. The three cases from the beginning of the week have long since been deleted. All those sought were found safely.

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