The federal police have received more reports of missing persons during the second lockdown than they did in the first, according to the unit’s senior office Alain Remue.
During the first lockdown in March, there were in fact fewer missing persons that is usual for the time of year, he told Het Nieuwsblad, largely as a result of the new restrictions introduced then.
By the end of August, the unit had taken reports of 373 missing persons cases, compared to around 1,000 in any given year normally.
But in the second confinement, the numbers have gone up, higher than the first period and higher than the average for the season.
“Suicide plays a leading role in many cases,” he said. And the pandemic is mentioned often in the notes people sometimes leave behind, as well as in interviews with missing persons after they return.
“The second wave has seen spirits plummet,” he said. “People’s resilience has been broken down. Getting the situation back under control suddenly turns out to be more difficult than expected. The savings are gone, while the bills are piling up. Finding a way out sometimes seems hopeless.”
The Missing Persons unit was set up in 2001, at the same time as Belgium’s police forces were being merged into one federal force. The unit came about as a direct result of the case of Marc Dutroux, serial kidnapper, rapist and killer, and the criticism levelled at the police – specifically the gendarmerie – for their failure to close in on Dutroux despite his being the prime suspect.
“However terrible what that man has done may be, it is because of his case – not because of him, I do not grant him that honour – that the search for missing persons in Belgium has made a huge leap forward,” Remue wrote in his 2010 book Zeg nooit nooit (Never Say Never).
Remue became the head of the current unit’s predecessor, the National Cell for Disappearances, in 1995, and remained as head when the Missing Persons unit followed.
Now, missing persons come from all age categories.
“Apart from children, no age-group is spared the impact of corona, according to our files,” he said. “We feel that the second lockdown has dealt a lot of people of all ages a heavy blow.”
However he is most concerned about young people, who are more dependent on social contacts and more vulnerable to isolation.
“I have a habit of calling on young people to take care of each other when they go out. In the current circumstances I would like to extend that call: take care of the people who are lonely around you.”