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The long-term missing inhabit a looking-over-their-shoulder world of false names, cash-in-hand jobs, hostels and short lets.

For their families, they leave behind not only trauma, grief, guilt, anger and despair, but also, if they are breadwinners, more practical problems.

This, the equivalent of the entire population of Plymouth being spirited away, means that, across the country, one person goes missing every two minutes.

The vast majority are swiftly found, or return of their own volition, but many don't.

A 2003 study found that only 20 per cent of missing adults traced by Missing People decided to return to the place they had left, and 41 per cent of those located were not prepared to make contact with those who were looking for them.

The conclusion is that they're fleeing something – in their own minds or in reality – far more deep-seated than the cause of a teenager's tiff with Mum, Dad, a step-parent or friends.

But, most of all, the long-term missing leave behind an aching sense of mystery: what has become of them, and why did they go?

There have always been the elderly and confused, the alcoholics, drug addicts and obsessive loners who drift out of contact, until the family, wishing to try again, finds there is no forwarding address.

And there will always be the utterly inexplicable disappearances – people such as Anne Simpson, a mother of 60, who went for a walk near her home in Ingoldmells, Lincolnshire, in September 2004 and never returned.

His face is on the web, on posters, and on 15,000 leaflets that were distributed in London by three coachloads of family, friends, schoolmates and teachers, who travelled to London and searched for him a year after his disappearance.

His 14-year-old face stares from a page on the Missing People website, increasingly a reminder of what he once was, rather than an aid to recognising him now.

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