BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 23:02 GMT, Tuesday, 12 May 2009 00:02 UK

Missing... from afar

Clockwise from top left: Eddie Gibson, Katrice Lee, Jeremy Hoyland, Ben Needham, Charles Horvath-Allan and Steven Cook
Where are they now?

By Marie Jackson and Dhruti Shah
BBC News Magazine

Nearly 500 Britons went missing abroad last year, according to figures obtained by the BBC. Many were found alive within days, some were discovered dead, but for lots of families it is a story without an ending.

Three years, eight months and 12 days ago Steven Cook went on a bar crawl with friends on the first night of their summer holiday in Crete.

They never saw him again.

"It's a bit like your house being hit by a tornado," explains his father, Norman Cook.

"Your life is ruined and you cannot rebuild it with new materials. It's never the same again."

Foreign Office records, released to the BBC News website under the Freedom of Information Act, showed 145 Britons were missing abroad at the end of 2008. Many had disappeared years earlier - their cases still unsolved.

The figure may not sound a lot but for every individual there is a family in torment, treading water, unable to get on with their lives.

2008: 481 new cases reported. At end of year, a running total of 145 cases remained open
2007: 401 new cases reported. At end of year, a running total of 41 cases remained open
2006: 336 new cases reported. At end of year, a running total of 171 cases remained open
Accurate figures only go back to 2006
Source: Foreign Office

The Americans have given this a name - "ambiguous grieving" - a sort of limbo where you don't know whether to grieve or live in hope.

Denise Allan, who is still searching for her son, Charles, after nearly 20 years has a grave prepared for him back home.

For the Cook family on the other hand, it is a case of believing that "anything is possible" until they know otherwise, and doing whatever it takes to find Steven.

This has meant doing things they would never have thought possible - searching everywhere from mental institutions to caves for their youngest son, even scouring a quarry on the advice of a psychic.

That was a day Mr Cook, usually a sceptic, says will live with him forever.

"It had got to the point where I would have tried anything - just in case. I knew I was either looking for my son, seriously injured, or his corpse. I came down one side of the quarry shouting 'Steven, Steven', my nephew down the other. It was terrible to have to do that."

Birthday plans

That sense of desperation and dread is all too familiar to Denise Allan.

In May 1989, she had her last communication with her son, Charles Horvath-Allan, who was travelling through Canada.

It was a fax detailing flights to Hong Kong, where they were due to meet to celebrate his 21st birthday and her 40th.

Only silence followed. Mrs Allan began to worry, then panic.

"By August, I was totally deranged and rang to report him officially missing," she says.

But the Canadian police responded saying he was over 18 and "if he didn't want to call his mum, he didn't have to". There began a long, painful and financially crippling search for her son.

Anonymous letter
A letter directed divers to a body - but it was not Charles

One of the bleakest moments came in 1992 after an anonymous letter indicated Charles had been killed at a party and his body dumped in a lake.

A team of divers scoured the lake, and on the sixth day found a male body. At a press conference, the police said it was Charles.

The news made the Sunday papers back in Britain, which were picked up by Charles' grandmother and great-grandmother. But the police had spoken too soon - it was not Charles after all.

"I ended up sending a three-page fax to all the world's media saying the only person who knows where my son is the person who took him and God almighty," says Mrs Allan.

"When the coroner told me it was not Charles, I was just mortified. I knew I had lost him. The three years of hell that we had endured was not over and it's now gone on nearly 20 years and it's still not over."

Such torment is by no means restricted to those whose loved ones have travelled overseas. But for them there is often an additional layer of anguish caused by having to deal with foreign authorities whose practices and customs may be wholly different from those of British police.

It leaves some families themselves turning detective, trying quickly to learn how to handle foreign authorities and mount a search operation themselves.

Jacqui Hoyland
When I got off that plane to look for him, I expected a search plan, but there was none
Jacqui Hoyland

Jacqui Hoyland did exactly that when her husband went missing on a water scooter off the Bali coast six months ago.

"When I got off that plane to look for him, I expected a search plan, but there was none," she says.

Meetings were set up with the British ambassador but things weren't happening quickly enough.

"Every second missing at sea matters. You can't have meetings for three days deciding what you are doing next," she says.

Instead, she resorted to her own professional project management skills to take control, launch a helicopter search and look for clues.

At one stage, she even managed to work out her husband's co-ordinates from his final mobile phone calls made at sea. Unfortunately those potentially vital clues came too late.

Negative publicity

A common experience can be hostility from foreign police forces and local authorities.

Some have a low opinion of British tourists and the associated drinking culture while others are afraid negative publicity will damage local tourism and make a big dent in income.

One of the toughest challenges though can be financial. Most families of missing people say there is no price too high in the search for their loved one.

But the reality of overseas flights, publicity material, detective bills and translators possibly combined with a reduced income can put a huge strain on families.

Worse still, there are the financial arrangements of the missing person to be dealt with, complicated by the lack of resolution.

Norman Cook
We, as a family, have to know - good or bad - what has happened to Steven
Norman Cook

It took Mr Cook's local MP to persuade the Student Loans Company to freeze the interest on Steven's loan.

Meanwhile, Mrs Hoyland is embroiled in a battle with Balinese authorities for a death certificate for her husband, needed to meet mortgage repayments.

Mrs Hoyland and Mrs Allan's experience may have come 20 years apart, but both were surprised by how little support they received.

The Foreign Office can help by setting up meetings abroad, advising on media campaigns and alerting border and international police, but it cannot help with funding.

Today, there are more groups trying to fill that gap, among them Missing Abroad, set up 18 months ago by Tim Blackman, father of murdered bar hostess Lucie, who disappeared in Tokyo in 2000.

In the past year, the project has handled about 100 cases. Of those, about 70 missing people were found, one had committed suicide, two remain outstanding and the rest resulted in a body being repatriated to Britain.

But what next for the families of those still missing? It seems, more than anything, they want an end to the story.

"We, as a family, have to know - good or bad - what has happened to Steven," says Mr Cook.

Mrs Allan believes Charles died in the summer of 1989.

"How and by what means I don't know but something terrible happened to him that prevented him from calling home," she says.

"I want to know where his remains are. I want him to be laid to rest with his beloved Nana."

Below is a selection of your comments.

I sympathise deeply with the people concerned here, but it is annoying once again to see an underlying assumption in your article that British police are somehow superior to all others. In virtually all cases involving Britons abroad, the media perpetuates an underlying arrogance with respect to the assumed superiority of British police forces and the presumed incompetence of foreign forces.
Ronnie, London

I feel for the families of missing persons. In the early 80s, two young Englishmen on motorcycles disappeared as they headed from Daharan (Saudi Arabia), following the oil pipeline. They had done this many times before. They went missing along with the bikes, never to be found despite an exhaustive search with little help from the local authorities. It was and still is one the most harrowing experiences to go through - not knowing why and where.
A J Goyette, Palm Beach, USA

British Tourists have given themselves a very bad name, and at times like these, it makes me glad that I can own an Irish passport. I noticed a big difference in how I was treated abroad by local people and local authorities from having a British passport to an Irish passport. It doesn't excuse how people are treated when a loved one goes missing but, it might help if the British people tried to improve their image a little by showing respect to local cultures that they visit.
Joanne, Downpatrick, Northern Ireland

My boyfriend disappeared two and a half years ago. He had a lot of personal problems, and one day just stopped calling. I tried everything to find him, and to this day I have no idea where he is. In my heart of hearts, I know he has probably taken his own life, but there is still a part of me that hopes he is ok, and has sorted his head out. Coping with not knowing is the hardest thing - you don't know whether to move on, whether to grieve, whether to keep hoping. I chose to move on, and somehow have managed it. I still think about him though, and would just like to know what happened. I can't imagine how the people who have lost a child must feel, and my thoughts go out to them. To even keep going after such an event is the bravest thing I can think of.
JR, Cardiff

The case of Madeleine McCann has highlighted this problem and we've all seen what it has done to her family as they desperately try to find her. It is the most awful of situations, I can only begin to imagine the despair it causes. There should be more support for these desperate families who seek to find their loved ones or at least find out what happened to them.
Sara, Stroud

This made me so sad to read this. I imagined what may have been possible when my son left the US to live in Germany for six months. I will be praying for those families now.
Mary, Peterborough, UK

I was personally touched by the plight of the Cook family and have followed the disappearance of Steven very closely, I even offered support and help to the Cooks when I visited Greece myself in 2007. I hope that all of the families of missing people eventually get the closure that they crave and that foreign relationships will no longer hinder the official process for future families searching for their loved ones.
Blake McDonald, Derby United Kingdom

Is there a site for Brits missing overseas? Being a part of a large expat community here in Oz I think many people here and in other similar expat communities would like to help even if it is just by keeping a look out.
Rob, Perth, Oz

My family have had not contact from my brother Finlay Logan for almost four years now. I can relate to the anguish that the families are feeling and how difficult it can be day to day. All we want is to move on but it is hard, we believe that he may be somewhere near Barcelona but trying to gain help from foreign authorities is impossible they just don't care. So the next stage is back out to Spain again and vain hope!
Michelle Logan, Glasgow

I left home when I was young, twenty; my parents never battered an eyelid, never offered me any help or even called to see if I was ok. Twenty one years later I am a happy person with a baby son living in Hong Kong. What will I do if he tells me he wants to travel the world to seek his fortune? Frankly the idea terrifies me. However, with my experience and knowledge of the world, I will always be ready to be there for him- this is the only way I can convince myself that he will be safe.
Justin, Hong Kong

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