Missing Migrants and Deaths at the EU's Mediterranean Border: Humanitarian Needs and State Obligations

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Centre for Applied Human Rights


The epidemic of deaths at the EU's southern shores has taken on a new urgency as the scale of the phenomenon increases. There has been an average of eight deaths a day for the last 14 years, and the problem is worsening. Yet the focus has remained on Europe, driven by references to the "flood" of migrants, and by a policy discussion centred almost exclusively around securing the borders of the EU. The 40,000 people believed to have died trying to enter the EU in the last 14 years remain faceless and anonymous, statistics that justify ever more draconian rhetoric in the capitals of the EU's member states.

What remains largely undiscussed amid the data, however, is the fact that most of those who die are missing to those families, in the sense that they have no idea if loved ones who have migrated are dead or alive: the IOM estimates that more than half of the presumed deaths in the Mediterranean have not been verified. Where the bodies of migrants are found in the sea, or washed up on Europe's shores, they are often not identified. The result is that families in the migrants' countries of origin receive no information about what has happened to loved ones who have left. As with any unresolved loss, the ambiguity over the fate of the missing means mothers and wives, sons and daughters live between hope and despair, always waiting for news of their loved one, but never receiving it. The cemeteries of Europe's southern periphery contain anonymous bodies found on beaches after shipwrecks, for which serious identification efforts have not been made.

In Lebsos, the Greek island where the greatest recent rise in deaths has occurred, the local population is traumatised by these deaths, and local officials are paralysed because resources and policies from Athens concern only the management of living migrants. In contrast to the extensive regulation of migration by the Greek state, there are no regulatory provisions with regard to the identification and burial of the dead. As a result, local authorities - with capacities eviscerated by the economic crisis - improvise responses, with the possibility of identifying the dead compromised by a lack of political will, expertise and resources. A visit to the local cemetery in Mytilene, Lesbos's main city, reveals human remains lightly covered by earth, the only mark on the graves a broken stone, on which is written the (purported) nationality of the migrant, a number, and the date of death. No effort is made to collect post-mortem data that could be linked to the human remains in the ground, and thus aid identification. Local communities by and large reject the language of security in which the issue is wrapped by central governments: they see migrants continuously arriving - both living and dead - and understand that this is a humanitarian issue. While the EU and its member states devote huge resources to the control of their maritime borders, there is an acute lack of resources dedicated to addressing the humanitarian impact of unidentified migrant bodies. Data to count the number of dead have never been systematically collected by states. EU states have the capacity to create a system in which migrant bodies are dignified, with an appropriate burial, and data is collected to maximise the possibility of identifying the dead and ensuring that their families are informed.

This project seeks to generate data that can enable the authorities to prioritise a systematic approach to the collection of information from both migrant bodies found in the EU and from the families of missing migrants seeking information about missing loved ones. The project will permit such policies to be driven by an understanding of what the families of dead and missing migrants seek from such an approach.

Planned Impact

The users of the research and its outputs include the families of missing migrants, authorities in both states of migrant origin and of reception (including the EU), and regional and inter-governmental bodies such as the Council of Europe, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The project is explicitly designed both to raise the profile of the issue of dead and missing migrants in Europe, and to ensure that addressing the humanitarian implications is on the agenda of all those agencies and institutions that can drive the development of effective policy.

The humanitarian perspective of the study perceives the families of the missing as key beneficiaries, in several ways: the research will engage migration lawyers in Lampedusa and Lesbos during the data-taking phase, so that families participating in the research phase of the research can be given expert advice about what steps they can take to seek information about missing or dead loved ones. this project will for the first time give families campaigning in migrant states of origin a European perspective, informing affected families about the technical issues in states where bodies are found: an engagement with activist families will permit a sharing of information about the deficits and challenges of identification of bodies in Europe, and link families to activists in Europe working on migration issues. To humanize the issue and challenge rhetoric that seeks to understand migration in purely quantitative terms, the pain of families living with ambiguity must be communicated. This project will allow the creation of products that can share the suffering of families of missing migrants in European media. Those families who have organised around the issue will be able to use project outputs, in terms of data on families' needs, to advance advocacy with their own governments.

A range of civil society actors will be able to benefit from the project outputs, in terms of reports on need of families of missing migrants and on methods to identifying bodies; a short film that the project will support; and access to additional data that can complement the technical skills and experience they bring to their work with governments.

The IOM is a collaborator in this research project and a leading voice and actor concerning issues of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean. Whilst they have the deepest understanding of the phenomenon of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, their work has been constrained by a lack of understanding of the needs of families of missing migrants that can guide their work with European governments, the EU and beyond. This research will give IOM a rigorous multi-context analysis of the needs, perceptions and action of affected families as a base to continue their advocacy and technical support with a range of governments and other actors.

Advocacy outputs of the project will target national and local authorities in Greece and Italy as well as institutions of the EU and Council of Europe to improve data collection from bodies found and to offer greater support to families. The project will permit concrete recommendations to be made for all EU states to improve their practice in the collection of data from migrant bodies and from families seeking missing relatives, as well as formalizing the allocation of resources at the EU level to support such efforts. The primary objective of the proposed workshops is to effectively communicate the findings to policymakers and maximize the potential for impact, through advocacy for the adoption of measures that increase identifications and allow relatives to be informed.
Description The Mediterranean Missing research project has sought to understand both the impact on families of having a relative missing in migration, and the law, policy and practice around the identification of bodies of dead migrants in Italy and Greece. Interviews with families of missing migrants from five countries confirmed the huge impact of not knowing the fate of loved ones, with families tortured by ambiguity and suffering a range of emotional and psychological consequences. In Lesbos, Greece, and Sicily, Italy, interviews with authorities, civil society and others confirm the presence of a policy vacuum around the issue of the missing, despite the duties on states imposed by human rights law. Investigation of deaths is inadequate, with effective post-mortem data collection and management challenged by the huge numbers of migrants, in some cases sufficiently to compromise future identification. In both Greece and Italy, response is characterised by a policy vacuum, with a large number of agencies with overlapping mandates lacking coordination. Whilst in Italy a dedicated Commission and its partners have demonstrated what can be done with appropriate resources, there is a need to ensure that all the dead benefit from such an approach. A constraint in both contexts remains the lack of outreach to families of the missing, who can provide ante-mortem data to enable identification, and who should anyway be at the centre of all efforts to address the issue and identify the dead.
Exploitation Route The Greek and Italian authorities can use these to improve their collection of data from migrant bodies, and to optimise their routes to contacting relatives of the dead to facilitate identification. European states and regional organisations can use the findings to begin creating a pan-European architecture to share data about dead and missing migrants and so better satisfy their obligations to identify the dead and inform families.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice

URL http://mediterraneanmissing.eu/
Description Both the Greek and Italian authorities, in the latter case notably through the Commissioner for Missing Persons, better understand the deficiencies in their approaches to managing migrants bodies and the data around them, and have begun to consider implementing some of the project's recommendations. The International Organisation for Migration - a project partner - has for the first time data around migrant bodies found at Europe's southern borders, and is using this in all its interactions on the issue with European states and regional organisations, and others. The project findings were widely reported in European media and have impacted on public perceptions of the issue. Update 2017: In the year since the completion of the project and publication of data, the project and its outputs have served as an example of how the issue of dead and missing migrants can be approached from a perspective of research driving advocacy and seeking to impact policy. A number of high profile media pieces (e.g. http://www.wired.co.uk/article/refugee-crisis-facebook) have appeared that reference the project, that constitute an additional advocacy output of the project, impacting public opinion and potentially policy makers. The goal of impacting policy makers and seeing efforts to address identification of those who die at Europe's borders has largely been frustrated by the toxic politics around the issue of migration, and the continuing invisibility of the migrant dead. Update 2019: Whilst the political environment in the EU remains challenging to address the issues of migrant missing, the data and experience of the project has been used by a range of organisations - including IOM, ICRC and others. The PI has worked with IOM in preparing a report outlining ways forward in identification of migrant bodies on the Central Mediterranean Route and with ICRC on setting standards around missing person.
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Collaboration with IOM: Missing Migrants 
Organisation International Organization for Migration
Country Switzerland 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution The research team provides knowledge production to a collaboration which can leverage both the academic inputs from the of research and the practice inputs of IOM engagement with states, regional organisations and the public.
Collaborator Contribution The research project has furnished the collaboration with data that was not previously available, allowing outreach and advocacy to address the issue of missing migrants in Europe and beyond.
Impact All the reports of this project are outcomes of this collaboration. The work is highly multi-disciplinary engaging with social and political science, migration studies, areas studies, and the psychosocial.
Start Year 2015