How many missing people are there in the UK? Police data explained as body found in search for Nicola Bulley

Police deal with hundreds of thousands of missing person cases every year - and almost 12,000 long-term cold cases are on their books.

National Crime Agency data shines a light on missing persons cases across the UK. (Image: NationalWorld/Kim Mogg)National Crime Agency data shines a light on missing persons cases across the UK. (Image: NationalWorld/Kim Mogg)
National Crime Agency data shines a light on missing persons cases across the UK. (Image: NationalWorld/Kim Mogg)

The high profile disappearance of missing mother of two, Nicola Bulley, has cast light on the hundreds of thousands of missing person reports received by UK police forces each year.

Yesterday (19 February), Ms Bulley’s partner, Paul Ansell, spoke of his “agony” after police recovered an unidentified body near to where she first went missing. In a statement shared with Sky News Mr Ansell said: "No words right now, just agony." The 45-year-old was last seen over three weeks ago on 27 January by the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre while walking her dog.

The body is in the process of being identified – but the death is being treated as “unexplained”. Police said previously that her disappearance was not suspicious.

Missing person incidents are extremely complex but data published by the National Crime Agency’s (NCA) Missing Persons Unit gives some insight into the cases of missing persons, including how many people go missing each year, who goes missing and some of the reasons why.

How many missing person reports do police respond to each year?

Police forces across the UK received almost 265,000 calls relating to missing people in 2020/2021, resulting in over 262,000 incidents being recorded. Some people may go missing more than once, and some incidents may involve more than one person.

In the 12 months to April 2021, police forces dealt with more than 128,000 individual missing adults and children in England, Wales and Scotland. The number is likely higher, as data was missing for Northern Ireland and several English and Welsh police forces.

Last year in England and Wales, 73,217 adults were reported missing, a 17.9% drop on the previous year’s figures when 89,128 were reported missing. Additionally, 46,770 children were reported missing during the same period, a 28.9% decrease on the year before. In Scotland 2,587 children were reported missing and 5,636 adults.

Lancashire Police, who are responding to Nicola Bulley’s disappearance, were unable to provide figures for last year. The Metropolitan Police had the greatest number of missing individuals with 18,821, followed by Greater Manchester with 13,398 and West Midlands with 5,778.

Who goes missing?

A greater proportion of men than women were recorded missing last year in England and Wales. More than half (53.7%) were men, 44.9% were women and 0.1% were trans. The gender divide was found to be similar elsewhere in the UK.

An age group breakdown of missing case incidents also shows the greatest proportion were in response to children aged 12 to 17 – 55.5% of incidents.. As incidents refer to every missing person episode, this could involve children who repeatedly go missing. This was followed by 18 to 39 year olds, with 26.3% of incidents, and 40 to 59 year olds at 11%.

Excluding missing people whose ethnicity is recorded as unknown/other, the NCA reports that 60.5% of incidents in England and Wales involved people of a white northern European ethnicity, followed by Black with 9.3%.

Why do people go missing?

Missing person cases are complex but NCA data provides some insight into the reasons behind disappearances. Lifestyle reasons –  which includes relationships, drugs or alcohol, school, financial and employment factors – were the main cause of missing incidents last year, representing almost 40% of cases. Mental health was the second most common reason for missing incidents, including depression or anxiety and suicide attempts. It was connected to 27.7% of all incidents.


The NCA has stopped publishing figures on reasons why people go missing so the data is based on figures published in its 2019/20 report.

How many people are still missing in the UK?

The lion’s share of missing incidents in England and Wales are resolved within eight hours with figures showing 47.9% of all incidents are closed between zero and eight hours. Only 0.9% of incidents last 28 days or more.

Many missing people are never found, however. These are known as long-term missing people, which are defined as individuals reported missing prior to the latest reporting period (in this case 2020/21) and who were still missing on the last day of the reporting year.

Last year 11,608 people were recorded as long-term missing in the UK. In England and Wales, 3,704 children are long-term missing alongside 7,066 adults, as well as two whose ages are unknown.

In Northern Ireland 61 adults and children are long-term missing. Police Scotland had the second highest number of long term missing people of any police force, with 775. Of these, 322 (42%) are related to persons classed as ‘missing - presumed deceased (at sea)’ as a result of marine accidents (for example from vessels sinking, or the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster, when a North Sea oil rig exploded then sank) and those who are known to have entered a body of water, either through accident or an intentional act.

The Metropolitan Police has the greatest number of long-term missing people in the UK with 6,739.

Visit the Missing People website or call or text 116 000 for free and confidential support and information.

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