Raising the bar

Raising the bar: New international instruments, scientific disciplines, and practice related to missing migrants

The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2022 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The essay’s author Chris Horwood is a migration specialist and co-director of Ravenstone Consult.

After decades of official indifference, is the “great untold tragedy” of missing migrants, a key characteristic of today’s mixed migration phenomenon that continues to claim mostly unnamed lives on a daily basis, finally getting the attention it deserves?


Several important texts to emerge in recent years have given unprecedented attention to the issue of missing migrants, highlighting states’ obligations to address a long-neglected and large-scale calamity. Chief among them are:

The spirit of these new texts is rooted in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and subsequent human rights instruments that require, in times of conflict, the dead be searched for, collected, documented, identified, and disposed of in a dignified manner, ideally by returning remains to bereaved families. These principles are now being applied to humanitarian non-conflict scenarios. The high number of missing or dead resulting from migratory events has served as an impetus to galvanise new efforts.

The Mytilini Declaration was adopted by some 30 organisations and individuals in May 2018 on the Greek island of Lesvos after two days of discussions among experts from across the world. It lists the existing legal obligations states have towards migrants and asserts the rights of the missing and of the deceased and their bereaved families.

A year later, the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) released the Guiding Principles for the Search for Disappeared Persons. These were based on the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and other relevant international instruments, and identify mechanisms, procedures, and methods for carrying out the legal duty to search for disappeared persons. In particular, they seek “to consolidate good practices in searching effectively for disappeared persons, arising from States’ obligation to search.”

Under Objective 8 of the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) states undertook to “save lives and establish coordinated international efforts on missing migrants”. These efforts should include provisions for data collection of deceased migrants to ensure traceability after burial “in accordance with internationally accepted forensic standards.” Signatories further agreed to “establish coordination channels at the transnational level to facilitate identification and the provision of information to families”.

As this essay will illustrate, this is easier said than done. Raising the bar in terms of setting new standards by which states can be judged has arguably been achieved, but attempting to implement compliance requires Herculean efforts, technical expertise in the field of compassionate science, and stamina, not to mention substantial political and financial commitments and transnational coordination. These efforts are not currently championed by states but instead are led by international agencies, non-government organisations, and academic centres.

Measurements hindered

Understanding the scale of the missing migrant phenomenon is challenging because of the clandestine nature of irregular mobility and the absence of documents or records of identity amongst the remains of those who perish. Often there are no witnesses available; those who might have borne testimony may have died in the same incident or have long since moved on by the time any investigators arrive on the scene. In some cases, relatives are not even aware their loved ones have migrated or which route they took. In others, no human remains are found, or tragic events take place beyond national boundaries in international waters, for example, raising questions around jurisdiction and responsibility that cause delays or inaction.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least 75,000 people have died globally since 1996 while migrating, more than 40,000 of them since 2014. In the Mediterranean, almost 23,000 have gone missing since 2013. These are conservative estimates: the real figures are presumed by most analysts to be considerably higher. But more accurate figures are impossible to come by because many cases are not reported or documented given the “extraordinary difficulty in gathering accurate information and data.” Groups of migrants may disappear altogether, or, in situations where they are regarded as uninvited and undocumented foreigners, there may be little national interest in investing money and time in investigations.

Moreover, some states lack the capacity to launch basic police investigations—let alone forensic enquiries—into missing migrants. In some cases, state officials may be directly implicated in migrant disappearances and/or deaths and therefore unlikely to be reliable or motivated investigators. All too often, embassies and consulates show little interest in pushing host governments to investigate their missing or dead citizens in transit or destination states. Although some governments have created departments dedicated to assisting the search for missing migrants and supporting their families, many others seem more preoccupied by the criminalisation of irregular movement.

The magnitude of the problem

A sense of the magnitude of the difficulties facing forensic teams investigating migrants’ deaths can be drawn from the notorious example of the fishing trawler that sank off the coast of Libya in April 2015. Massively overloaded with refugees and migrants from a wide spectrum of African states, the vessel dragged almost all aboard to an underwater tomb, only to be discovered inside the hull once the wreck was raised from the seabed a year later. Initially, the fatalities were thought to number 800, the most ever recorded in a single disaster involving a boat carrying refugees and migrants. But further investigations revealed the decomposed remains of an additional 300 bodies inside the trawler.

When a boat packed with more than 360 refugees and migrants from different countries sank several miles off the coast of Borg Rasheed, a village in Egypt’s northern Behera province, in September 2016, just 163 people were rescued. Thirty-three were found dead inside the boat and 168 people drowned nearby. Scientists from the Egyptian Forensic Medicine Authority were called to the scene to identify the dead and establish their cause of death. In Malaysia in 2015, migrant and refugee bodies, presumed to be nationals of Bangladesh and Myanmar, were exhumed from multiple mass grave sites in the jungle bordering Thailand. They were found months after being murdered or having died from neglect at the hands of their smugglers. In the arid and remote savannas of the US-Mexican border there are hundreds of cases where human remains are still unidentified despite exhaustive multi-agency collaboration over many years. In these kinds of context, where thousands of migrants die annually, and with respect to identification alone, the extent of the forensic challenges facing those working in line with the Mytilini Declaration and Objective 8 of the GCM becomes clear.

Incomplete puzzles

Many migrants and refugees in mixed migratory movements die as a result of misadventure, disease, climatic or geographical hardships, criminal neglect, and even murder. Countless others are trafficked and disappear into forced labour or sexual exploitation, with unknown outcomes.

Consider the nature of the problem facing investigators: migrants go missing or perish in a huge variety of situations, some in remote and inaccessible locations that greatly complicate searches and identification. Migrants commonly drown in the Mediterranean Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Atlantic , the Indian Ocean, the English Channel, or the Bay of Bengal and elsewhere. They perish in the jungles of the Darién Gap that straddles the border between Panama and Colombia, or Thailand, in the Sahara desert, in the mountains and forests of eastern Europe, in the Evros river along the land border between Türkiye and Greece, or the savanna of the US-Mexican border. Victims of shipwrecks that leave no survivors may go completely unrecorded, while deaths on land might only come to light months or even years later when someone reports finding human remains, or when families or reporters have looked and discovered clues, and pieces of the puzzle start to emerge. Groups of mothers of lost migrant children travel from Central America through Mexico each year. Some find their children alive; others discover remains to bury, but most never get answers and the puzzle is rarely completed, leaving the mystery of their missing children unsolved. In most countries, families lack the resources, necessary information, and political voice needed to even start their search for missing loved ones.

In some cases, migrants themselves or others well-meaningly bury or dispose of the bodies of dead migrants when they come across them, thereby preventing eventual discovery and identification. The extent to which deaths are caused by criminals, state officials, or smugglers has never been fully exposed, although numerous reports indicate many migrants have disappeared or died directly as a result of severe violations or deliberate neglect. The level of impunity enjoyed by perpetrators, and states’ failure to take migrant deaths and violations seriously in terms of criminal prosecutions, remains an outrage that underscores the general discrimination against people on the move and the widespread disregard for their fate.

The complexity of identification

Identification of those that perish is the first step to giving the dead dignity and offering a degree of peace to their surviving family and friends—in the unlikely event they can be identified. Most dead migrants are found without documents, making them hard to identify, even when post-mortem data, such as personal effects and survivor testimony, is available. However, a major obstacle to identification is that relatives of the missing rarely contact relevant authorities. Doing so would allow ante-mortem data, such as DNA, dental records, and narrative recollections about the missing person, to be gathered and compared to post-mortem data from unidentified remains. Outreach work to locate and collect ante-mortem data is time-consuming and meets with limited success in most cases. A single case of identity can take years of complicated and expensive detective work to solve. Since 2016, the Colibrí Center for Human Rights has obtained almost 600 DNA samples from families searching for relatives who went missing while crossing the US-Mexico border in an effort to match them with samples from remains found in the Arizona desert. Over the course of several years, the facility only managed to establish matches for 45 families. After 368 people died when the fishing boat on which they were travelling from Libya to Italy sank off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013, 80 bereaved families came forward looking for their relatives. Although only around 40 of dead were finally identified by forensic teams, the episode illustrates the positive role relatives can play in such efforts. It should be noted that the shipwrecks mentioned in this essay were high-profile incidents that led to an unprecedented mobilisation of forensic resources. According to a 2019 IOM report, “for the vast majority of unidentified migrant bodies examination is often cursory, with tissue samples collected but an autopsy rarely made, […] for most deaths no attempt to collect ante-mortem data is made.”

A compassionate movement

Various agencies and individuals have been responding to the need, motivated by the scientific challenge, and a sense of indignation that missing and dead migrants and their families have been so poorly served to date. In some cases, local citizens, such as Tunisian fishermen and  Yemeni  coastal  communities,  have  responded spontaneously by giving unidentified migrants burials. Already in 2004, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) developed the concept of “humanitarian forensic action” to ensure that those who die in war, disasters, and other complex emergencies are treated with respect and dignity and don’t become missing persons. One of the results of this initiative was the creation of the first International Centre for Humanitarian Forensics, in India. Conceptualisation of the wider problem of missing persons now increasingly includes missing migrants, as evidenced by the work of long-established organisations such as the International Commission on Missing Persons and the International Symposium on Human Identification. The ICRC established a Missing Persons Project in 2018 with growing resources and focus on missing migrants, sometimes in collaboration with IOM, which set up its own Missing Migrants Project in 2014 to document deaths and disappearances of international migrants.

On the technical front, by 2013, the Italian authorities and the ICRC were receiving many calls from families of missing migrants, and they realised the issue of identification in the Mediterranean was necessary and urgent. Since the 2013 Lampedusa tragedy, activist-pathologist Dr Cristina Catteneo, a pioneer in “extreme forensics”, has led Milan University’s Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology and Odontology in body identification. In the Americas, Operation Identification at Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Center does similar work, using the missing persons database developed by the Colibrí Center for Human Rights. Also, in 2013, Mexico created a Forensic Commission tasked with investigating crimes against migrants and identifying remains. The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) has been active since 1986 identifying bodies in mass graves and the results of atrocities all over the world; it is now also closely involved in identifying dead migrants and refugees. At a regional level, The Border Project (Proyecto Frontera), led by the EAAF, is an example of efforts to create a multi-country mechanism for the exchange of forensic information about missing migrants and unidentified remains. These are some of the prominent agencies involved in identification that are part of a growing movement of many actors, drawn mainly from the academic and non-profit sectors, but also including UN agencies and some national governmental departments.

This movement is fundamentally rights-based—the right in question being that to be identified at death—and constitutes a compassionate technical response that, due to the extreme conditions where migrant remains are generally found, pushes the frontiers of forensic science to its outer limits. Institutions are finding it important to collaborate internationally in their efforts to solve identification, leading to an intersection of forensic science, and humanitarian action and forensic anthropology.

The ‘ambiguous loss’ of affected families

There is now a growing recognition of the previously overlooked impact of missing and dead migrants on families. A recent study of affected families from Ethiopia details the “multidimensional emotional and psychological challenges that families experience due to the loss of their loved ones”, including grief and social, legal, and economic hardships. The study’s findings echo similar research in Central America and elsewhere where loss and uncertainty associated with unresolved cases causes deep suffering that sees no closure and affects family members for years. So-called “unresolved loss” or “ambiguous loss” has profoundly negative impacts on the families of missing persons with the traumatising effect of unanswered questions resulting in long-term “complicated grief”.

Ambiguous loss can be regarded as the most stressful type of loss because there is no proof of finality, leading to long-term “embodied grief”. Affected families also often experience a sense of disenfranchisement in so far that, as a recent study explained, “in the eyes of the law, religious institutions and the larger community, the family’s loss is often not considered ‘real’ as it would be with a verifiable death”. This may result in families and spouses (normally wives) being unable to legally access inheritance or rights to property, in contexts where traditions and customs privilege men. Analysis of the gendered impacts of loss suggests that where debts—such as those related to smuggler fees and ransom demands—have built up prior to and during migration, repayment obligations fall disproportionately on women, who are often the impoverished widows of missing or dead migrants. Further costs accumulate where families expend effort to search for missing family members and/or attempt to repatriate remains, if they are ever found. Few countries have established systems to assist families, showing that little heed has been paid to GCM Objective 8, in which states also undertake to facilitate “communication with affected families” and to “establish transnational coordination channels … and designate contact points for families looking for missing migrants”.

Bridging the gap

Stepping into the gap, some international agencies and national civil society organisations are working to respond to the needs of families as well as to improve search capacity and information exchange. Taking the lead, in 2021, the ICRC’s global Missing Persons Project produced three new tools related to missing migrants. Apart from working on tools, on the ground ICRC has decades of expertise with missing people that now include missing migrants. In particular, its Family Links initiative responds to requests from family members and is composed of the ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency and the tracing services of ICRC delegations and the 190 national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

IOM’s Missing Migrants project is increasing its research and advocacy platform on families of missing migrants, while the Last Rights project, which was the driving force behind the 2018 Mytilini Declaration, is joining others to push for a new framework of respect for the rights of missing and dead refugees and migrants as well as bereaved family members.

These initiatives inhabit a comparatively new area of enquiry and practice, one that responds to the practical and moral imperative the issue of missing migrants demands. But they and others are also increasingly highlighting the legal and normative responsibilities of states, which, to date, have been poorly met. As asserted by a UN special rapporteur, the continued and unlawful death of refugees and migrants “represents one of the great untold tragedies of this catastrophe, one that triggers the responsibility of States to provide dignity and accountability in death.”

What’s next?

Specifically on states’ commitments relating to the GCM’s Objective 8 and the absence of activity to date, relevant agencies are now listing actions that need to be taken in three key areas. These are: 1) preventing migrants from dying or going missing; 2) searching for and identifying those who have died or gone missing; and 3) providing support and redress to the families.

Recommendations to policymakers about missing migrants published by the ICRC in 2017 are directly echoed in a March 2022 statement by UN Network on Migration. Elsewhere, in 2021 the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights passed a resolution concerning missing migrants and refugees in Africa and the impact on their families. These texts illustrate a rising consciousness around the challenge of missing migrants and the need to develop more joined-up responses and lean into the moral imperative. To date, the evidence in self-reported progress towards implementing the GCM (by governments) offers little indication that many states have taken steps to save lives. Some suggest greater accountability should be required in the future.

Last Rights calls for all states to include data and narrative information on the implementation of Objective 8 in their GCM review reports, and to be required to do so in their periodic reports to the UN in compliance with international human rights standards. Indeed, during the International Migration Review Forum in May 2022 it was decided that specific indications would be required in future reporting protocols in relation to the GCM, including relating to Objective 8.

Concluding comments

Objective 8 of the GCM is evidently not a high priority for states. There is a harsh irony that, globally, many governments that fund and participate in identification of deceased migrants are the same governments that enforce restrictive migration policies, constrict regular channels for mobility, shrink space for asylum, limit search and rescue operations, and criminalise assistance to migrants. The paucity of state-led and collective search-and-rescue initiatives at sea illustrate the neglect; in the case of Europe and the Mediterranean, search-and-rescue has been removed in recent years and what private efforts exist are continually and deliberately hampered.

Regular migration pathways remain out of reach for most people on the move as a direct result of migration policies. Objective 8 is also concerned with saving lives and preventing deaths in the first place. Many efforts purportedly designed to curb irregular migration, such as externalising borders and containment policies, are ineffective or, worse, they encourage people on the move to take ever more dangerous routes along which fatalities are common. Apart from some examples of regularisation of existing irregular migrants, few countries are making any effort to follow through on their GCM commitments to significantly expand the scope of regular channels for mobility. In March 2022, a joint statement issued by several major organisations involved in migration noted that:

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people seeking family reunification, decent work, dignity, better opportunities or who are compelled to leave owing to disasters and precarious situations have few options other than irregular migration along riskier routes and are often forced to rely on smugglers to facilitate the passage.

Precarious irregular travel and the prevalence of smugglers managing migrants directly contributes to deaths and disappearances.

The increased awareness of and attention given to the issue of missing migrants and families as set out in the Mytilini Declaration, the Guiding Principles for the Search for Disappeared Persons, and the GCM can only be applauded, but this has yet to be translated into tangible action. The relative indifference towards and neglect of missing migrants by states all over the world to date is illustrative of a discriminatory approach to refugees and migrants that should be a source of shame. Many of the states that are practicing pushbacks, and who are reinforcing their borders with the latest surveillance technology and equipment to prevent undocumented access, are signatories to the GCM

Of course, the more pressing problem to solve is that of reducing and ending migrant deaths. But the emergence of a scientific discipline and humanitarian response to the technical and moral problem of missing migrants is not only a compassionate attempt to respond to an urgent mixed migration problem, but also a moral and legal obligation that only increases as the scale of the problem rises. It is also a major area of the GCM that remains woefully unaddressed. Civil society, academia, and international agencies have taken the lead, but now it is time for states to step up if the high ambitions of the texts discussed in this essay are to be even partially met.