LAGOS, Nigeria - Nearly 22,000 people, mostly children, are missing as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency in northeast Nigeria, the Red Cross said on Thursday.
The jihadist uprising which started in 2009 has killed more than 27,000 people, displaced some two million, and spilled over into neighboring countries, sparking a dire humanitarian crisis.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a statement that the nearly 22,000 Nigerians constituted the highest number of missing persons registered with the organization in any country.
Some 60 percent of the total were minors at the time they went missing, meaning that thousands of parents do not know where their children are and if they are alive or dead, according to the Red Cross.
"Every parent's worst nightmare is not knowing where their child is. This is the tragic reality for thousands of Nigerian parents, leaving them with the anguish of a constant search," ICRC President Peter Maurer said at the end of a five-day visit to Nigeria.
"People have the right to know the fate of their loved ones, and more needs to be done to prevent families from being separated in the first place," he said.
During the visit, Maurer met with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, senior government officials, civil society and business leaders.
He also spoke with family members affected by conflict in the northeastern cities of Maiduguri and Monguno, many of whom have missing relatives.
The Red Cross said that some families were often separated while fleeing attacks, while others have had loved ones abducted or detained and do not know their whereabouts.
"The ICRC works with the Nigeria Red Cross and other Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in the region to trace missing people by showing photographs, calling out names and going door-to-door in camps and communities," the statement said.
"So far, 367 cases have been solved since ICRC received its first cases in 2013, underscoring the immense challenges that come with finding missing people and reconnecting them with their families in Nigeria," it said.
Nigerian army chief Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai said on Tuesday the military had done a lot in the war against the insurgents but admitted that humanitarian efforts were being hampered.
"Large swathes of the northeast of the country remain completely inaccessible to humanitarian organizations. People have also been displaced by fighting many times, making them harder to find," he added.