New Global Missing Persons Trends

Imigrant Crossing US Mexico Border

ICMP’s Daily World News Digest brings together news stories dealing with enforced disappearances and missing persons cases from around the world. It offers a snapshot of daily events and over a longer period it highlights key trends.

Mediterranean Migration

The Mediterranean migration crisis continued to dominate headlines in June. A new structural aspect emerged amid reports of African migrants dying on the dangerous route across the Sahara, even before they reach the Mediterranean.

Euronews reported on 31 May  that thousands of migrants rescued from the Mediterranean were continuing to arrive in Italian ports, most, reportedly, from Eritrea, where alleged human rights abuses have sparked a refugee exodus. European authorities said that more than 5,000 migrants had been saved from boats in distress since 29 May, and operations were underway to rescue hundreds more. The Greek Reporter news portal reported on 31 May that the Greek coast guard rescued 237 migrants in seven different incidents near the islands of Kos, Chios and Lesvos on the night of 30 May. All the migrants are safe and well, and no missing persons have been reported.

On 3 June the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that the nearly 5,000 migrants rescued over the previous weekend as part of the expanded European Union search and rescue operation had brought the total estimated number of people arriving by sea to Italy in 2015 to more than 45,000, a slight increase from the same period last year, when arrivals were 41,243. The Independent news portal from Ireland reported on 7 June that the Irish Naval Service vessel LÉ Eithne was expected to arrive at an Italian port with almost 400 migrants rescued at sea over the previous weekend, bringing to 1,150 the total number of migrants that the Irish ship had saved since it departed from Cork on 15 May.

The International Organization for Migration carried a story on 14 June saying that authorities from Niger and IOM’s teams in the field had learned that the bodies of 18 migrants had been found in the Sahara. IOM Niger’s Chief of Mission Giuseppe Loprete said it was likely they had perished more than a week earlier having died most probably from dehydration. IOM Director General William Lacy Swing said in Geneva on 14 June that the tragedy “highlights a feared but hitherto little-known danger that too many migrants face long before they risk their lives at sea. The Sahara may be as deadly as the Mediterranean for this wave. All too tragically many of these deaths go unreported.” According to IOM the victims numbered 17 men and one woman, and were of different nationalities, mostly West African, including Niger, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Central African Republic, Liberia, and Guinea, with one victim reportedly from Algeria. On 16 June IOM reported that the discovery on 15 June of the remains of 30 migrants in Dirkou, northeast of Niger’s Agadez crossroads had brought to 48 the total of dead migrants found in the Sahara in the course of one week.

Amnesty International issued a statement on 15 June arguing that world leaders are condemning millions of refugees to an unbearable existence and thousands to death by failing to provide essential humanitarian protection. The statement accompanied an Amnesty briefing paper, The Global Refugee Crisis: A conspiracy of neglect, published in Beirut on 15 June, ahead of World Refugee Day on 20 June.

Doctors without Borders (MSF) reported on 15 June that it had launched an additional search and rescue boat in the Mediterranean, a 50-meter-long vessel named Dignity I, with an 18-person crew, including MSF medical personnel. The boat, which can accommodate up to 300 people rescued at sea, will bolster MSF’s current search and rescue operations. The MY Phoenix, operated by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), which has MSF medical personnel on board to provide post-rescue care, was launched on 2 May and has so far rescued 1,789 people. The Argos, run solely by MSF, began operating on 9 May, and has so far rescued 1,242 people.

The BBC reported on 18 June that the number of people displaced by war, conflict or persecution reached a record high of nearly 60 million in 2014, according to a UNHCR report. The report says the number of people forced to flee their homes rose by 8.3 million from the previous year. The continuing conflict in Syria is seen as a major factor behind the record numbers. UNHCR head Antonio Guterres told the BBC the “world is a mess” and that humanitarian agencies do not have the capacity “to pick up the pieces”. The report says that 59.5 million people were displaced by the end of 2014. This included 19.5 million refugees, 38.2 million internally displaced people and 1.8 million still awaiting the outcome of asylum claims. More than 50 percent of the refugees were children. In Syria alone, there were 3.9 million refugees and 7.6 million internally displaced persons. The authors of the report say their findings mean that one in every 122 people on the planet was either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum.

Human Rights Watch issued a report on 19 June highlighting the fact that human rights abuses are driving the surge in Mediterranean boat migration. The Mediterranean Migration Crisis: Why People Flee, What the EU Should Do says EU leaders should put human rights at the heart of the EU’s response.

On 20 June Amnesty International carried a story citing the crisis in Syria as “the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of our time”. It said four million refugees from Syria are struggling to survive in neighboring countries and another 7.6 million people are displaced within its borders. Less publicized conflicts are also devastating; three million refugees are fleeing human rights abuses in South Sudan, Nigeria, Burundi and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Voice of America reported on 23 June that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had called on European parliamentarians to advocate for the protection of people who risk their lives to escape conflicts, persecution and poverty. Addressing the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, Ban expressed alarm at “the plight of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees, especially in the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas, as well as the Bay of Bengal,” and called on the CoE “to advocate for the protection and rights of people who flee conflict, persecution, entrenched poverty or lack of access to decent work.” He added that “We have a responsibility, a common responsibility to act before more lives are lost. That is why Europe needs safer, regular and orderly channels for migration and mobility.”

Serbia and Hungary

On the margins of the Mediterranean migration crisis a spat developed during June between Serbia and Hungary over the management of refugee flows moving north from the Mediterranean. The BBC reported on 18 June that Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic was “shocked” by Hungary’s plan to erect a border fence to keep out migrants. Vucic said the four-meter high fence was “not the solution” to migrants entering Hungary from Serbia. Hungarian authorities announced the plan on 17 June, saying the fence would run the length of the 175km border between the countries. Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said Hungary could not wait for the EU to find a solution to immigration. The Hungarian government said about 54,000 migrants entered the country so far this year, compared to 43,000 people in 2014. Police registered 10,000 people illegally going over the border in January alone. The Guardian carried a story on 22 June on Hungary’s plans to build the fence, quoting a government spokesman, who said, “This is a necessary step. We need to stop the flood.” The BBC reported on 23 June that Hungary had suspended a key EU rule that says it must take back asylum seekers who first enter Hungary but travel on to other countries, a core principle for handling asylum claims in the EU called the Dublin Regulation. It says that the responsibility for examining an asylum seeker’s claims usually lies with the first EU country that the migrant reaches. In January to March 2015, Hungary had 32,810 new asylum applicants, the second-highest number of applicants in the EU after Germany. b92 reported on 24 June that Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto had said the government would build the temporary border fence “as soon as possible”. Szijjarto told a press conference after a cabinet meeting on 24 June that the fence “is not a bilateral issue” and that “relations with Serbia have never been as good as today.” Szijarto said he was informed that Austria and ten other EU member-states intended to send illegal immigrants back to Hungary. “We do not agree with that,” Szijarto said, adding that “they should be sent back to Greece, where they first entered the territory of the European Union.”

Iraq

In Iraq, systemic human rights abuses including enforced disappearances emerged from the dramatically changing military situation and the activities of Islamic State. Anadolu Agency reported on 1 June that the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights had announced the discovery of a mass grave of 80 Yezidis in a village west of Nineveh province in northern Iraq. Islamic State took control of Nineveh province and other areas in the north and west of the country when it led a sweeping attack in the summer of 2014.

The international medical organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières warned on 8 June that intense fighting had forced almost three million people to flee war-torn areas of central and northern Iraq in the last year, and many are now stranded in areas without the most basic humanitarian assistance. Thousands of families have fled widespread violence and shifting front lines, especially in the governorates of Anbar, Ninewa, Salah Al-Din, Kirkuk, and Diyala.

On 10 June the Mashable web portal reported that Islamic State is holding as many as 3,000 people captive. Big News Network reported on 23 June that Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of human rights while countering terrorism, had appealed for the Security Council to take immediate action to enforce international law and protect civilians living “in daily fear for their lives” in areas controlled by Islamic State, where “shocking crimes are being committed on an industrial scale.”

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) carried a story on 23 June announcing that its latest Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) had identified 3,087,372 internally displaced persons (514,562 families) in Iraq from January 2014 through 4 June 2015. The displaced are dispersed across all of Iraq’s 18 governorates. In the months since the beginning of hostilities in Ramadi, Anbar, on 8 April 2015 through 15 June, over 276,330 Iraqis are reported to have been displaced from the city and its outskirts.

Egypt

In Egypt the military government’s crackdown on dissent appeared to intensify in June, with multiple reports of enforced disappearances.

The Washington Post reported on 13 June that Egyptian activists say they have documented a disturbing rise in forced disappearances over the past two months, cases in which victims are taken without warrants and police deny knowledge of their whereabouts. The detainees often show up later in court or are released without explanation. At least two who were recently seized by security forces were later found dead, according to rights groups. “People have disappeared in Egypt before but definitely not at this rate,” said Khaled Abdel Hamid, spokesman for the rights group Freedom for the Brave. The group says that security forces have kidnapped 163 people since April and that 64 of them have since been released. Another rights organization, “3adala” (Justice), said it had confirmed 91 disappearance cases in April and May and that 38 people are still missing. The discrepancy in the tallies is attributable to different verification methods and contact networks, as well as the opaque nature of Egypt’s security apparatus, activists say. Last month, the al-Karama rights group announced that it had asked the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances to intervene in connection with seven cases of forced abductions in Egypt. The U.N. group has said in statements that it has sought since 2011 to visit the country but that Egyptian authorities have not responded to its requests.

On 8 June the Cairo Post reported that Hanaa Ali, mother of 23-year-old student Esraa el-Taweel, had called on the authorities to reveal her daughter’s whereabouts. El-Taweel was reported missing on 1 June along with two others, Sohaib Saad and Omar Mohamed, who were together at a dinner in the Cairo district of Maadi. Hanaa Ali told The Cairo Post “we have reported to the prosecution and police stations; unofficial sources told us she is at the homeland security agency.”

allAfrica reported that on 17 June al-karama had sent an urgent appeal to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) regarding the cases of 54-year-old veterinarian, Dr Salah Attia Mohamed Fiki, and his son, a 20-year-old medicine student, Osama Salah Attia Mohamed Fiki – still a child under Egyptian law – both disappeared since their unlawful arrest by the Egyptian Security Forces on 23 April. Despite numerous steps taken by the Fiki family to locate their relatives, the authorities continue to deny their detention, al-karama says. Al-karama also urged the WGEID to request a country visit to Egypt to assess the level of compliance of the authorities with their international obligations and to take effective measures to put an end to the practice of enforced disappearances.

The Middle East – North Africa Financial Network reported on 28 June that the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) and El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence had published reports documenting human rights violations over the past year. AFTE’s report covered violations at universities and violations against press freedom, while El Nadeem’s report covered violations inside detention facilities. The reports documented three cases of students who were killed inside universities during the past academic year, at least 500 students who were expelled, and times where police forces stormed into campuses in clashes with student protests. In detention facilities, 48 deaths were documented for inadequate healthcare, at least 180 cases faced torture. In the press freedom field, 172 violations were documented from arrests, expulsion, detention, assault, and removal of content. ” Enforced disappearances in Egypt are reported to have increased 42% during January-June 2015.

Mexico

In Mexico the response of the authorities to the country’s missing persons crisis continued to draw criticism. Prensa Latina reported on 31 May that the authorities are still searching for dozens of missing people in Chilapa Municipality, in the state of Guerrero. On 1 June La Prensa reported  that two bodies had been found in a clandestine grave in Chilapa, but they are not those of any of the people who disappeared in the city last month.

teleSUR carried a story on 15 June reporting that a former judge seeking asylum in the United States has said he witnessed events on the night that 43 Ayotzinapa students were forcibly disappeared. Speaking to journalists from Proceso magazine, the judge gave a new version of what happened in Iguala, in the southern state of Guerrero, on the night of 26 September. He suggests that federal and military officials were directly involved in the targeting of the trainee teachers. This contradicts the conclusions of the official investigation. The attorney general’s office has made public a criminal report which finds that only municipal police were involved. It said that after the students were detained at the local jail, corrupt officers handed them over to the local drug cartel Guerreros Unidos, whose members burned the bodies at a local garbage dump and threw the remains in a nearby river. However, exiled Judge Ulises Bernabe, who was in charge of administrative procedures at Iguala’s police station, says the students were never taken to the jail.

Amnesty International carried a story on 19 June saying that for many Central American migrants making the long and risky journey through Mexico to the US, the voyage is a death-trap with scores falling prey to violent criminal gangs and some going missing. Every year, thousands are robbed, attacked, abducted, tortured and killed by violent criminal gangs who operate along the migrant route, often working in collusion with local authorities. Many other migrants simply “disappear” with their relatives back home unable to even look for them as they lack the resources or papers to travel to Mexico. According to official figures reported in the media obtained through freedom of information requests from the National Institute of Migration (INM), between 2013 and 2014, abductions of migrants increased tenfold, with 62 complaints registered in 2013 and 682 in 2014. These figures are only the tip of the iceberg, as many cases are not reported at all. Many migrants decide not to present a complaint for fear of reprisals or deportation.

teleSUR reported on 23 June that Mexican officials have managed to find only one percent of some 27,000 people who have been disappeared in the country. Figures from the Special Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons, which was created by the Office of the Attorney General, show that Mexican law enforcement managed to locate 112 disappeared people over the last two years. Only 77 of them were found alive. In the same time period, the National Register of Missing and Disappeared Persons documented 26,928 missing people (this number does not include the found 112 people).

Africa

Human rights abuses, including enforced disappearances, were reported in a number of African countries in June as a consequence of political developments including “anti-terrorist” operations.

Amnesty International issued a report on 3 June stating that since 2011 the Nigerian military has arrested at least 20,000 people in northeast Nigeria on suspicion of being Boko Haram members. More than 7,000 suspects died in military detention from torture, starvation, disease or were simply shot, Amnesty says. Amnesty found that these acts amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Nigerian military has also executed more than 1,200 people, it said. One of the most horrific mass extrajudicial executions by the military happened on 14 March 2014 in Maiduguri, Borno state. In the aftermath of a Boko Haram attack on the military detention facility at Giwa barracks during which the detainees were released, the military killed at least 640 men and boys, most of them recaptured detainees, the Amnesty report says. Amnesty released video evidence of the Nigerian military cutting the throats of some of these men and boys.

Doctors without Borders carried a story on 22 June saying that in northeast Nigeria’s Borno State, ongoing conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian army and recurring attacks on civilians have forced thousands of people to flee their homes. There are currently more than 1.5 million displaced people in the area, according to UNHCR. Refugees continue to arrive daily in the camps established by national authorities in the Extreme North region.

The BBC carried a story on 24 June saying that Boko Haram militants have killed at least 40 people in north-eastern Nigeria, according to witnesses. The attacks on 22 and 23 June took place in the villages of Debiro Hawul and Debiro Bi in Borno state. Residents say the militants drove into the towns and began shooting, looting and burning houses. In a separate attack, a young female suicide bomber reportedly killed at least 10 people in the neighboring state of Yobe. A witness said the girl, who detonated explosives in the town of Gujba on Tuesday, was about 12 years old.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement on 8 June calling on the Democratic Republic of Congo authorities “promptly and properly” to exhume a mass grave that may contain the bodies of people forcibly disappeared or executed by Congolese security forces. On 5 June, the families of 34 victims filed a public complaint with Congo’s national prosecutor requesting justice and the exhumation of the mass grave in Maluku, a rural area about 80 kilometers from the capital, Kinshasa. Local residents, opposition leaders, the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, and human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have raised concerns about a 19 March nighttime mass burial, in which government security forces participated, on the edge of Maluku’s Fula-Fula cemetery. The government has neither exhumed the gravesite nor revealed the identities of those buried there.

On 1 June the Allafrica news portal reported that Ahmed Abdullahi, the Governor of Wajir County in the northeast of Kenya, had instructed security agents to respect the rule of law amid the war against terrorism. He warned against police brutality after images of an alleged incident in Garissa, south of Wajir, surfaced online. Abdullahi described reports of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances as “very disturbing and unfortunate”.

Amnesty International, the Civil Society Organizations Reference Group, the National Civil Society Congress and Human Rights Watch issued a statement on 11 June calling on the Kenyan government “to stop harassing nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the country’s coastal area.” The statement said harassment and intimidation of Haki Africa and Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI) is connected to their legitimate human rights work. Kenyan authorities placed MUHURI and Haki Africa, both of which work to promote human rights in the country’s coastal region, on an official list of alleged supporters of terrorism. The region, which has a large Muslim population, has experienced a series of attacks by armed groups, including the Somalia-based al-Shabaab. Security forces have responded by detaining and abusing local residents, and forcibly disappearing and killing suspects.

allAfrica carried a story on 23 June saying that South African police have confirmed that an operation to exhume bodies believed to be buried in a mass grave at a former prison labour camp on a South Coast farm began on 22 June. Officers from the Missing Persons Task Team, established in 2004 to conduct investigations into cases of persons who disappeared in political circumstances between 1 March 1960 and 10 May 1994, were involved in the exercise. The existence of the graves on a sugar plantation called Glenroy Farm in the Dududu area just outside Amanzintoti was first announced in March by the Office of the Premier.

Deutsche Welle carried a story on 8 June on the report on Eritrea compiled by a three member inquiry panel set up by the UN Human Rights Council. Sheila Keetharuth, the UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea and a member of the Commission of Inquiry set up by the UN Human Rights Council, said that systematic, gross human rights violations are being committed under the authority of the government. Some of these violations constitute crimes against humanity. She called for an end to all forms of enforced disappearance.  The Guardian carried a story on 10 June welcoming the European Union’s decision in April to resume humanitarian search and rescue in the Mediterranean but argues that the European response to the migration crisis “deals only with the symptoms of migration, not its root causes.” It says Eritrea is a striking case in point. This east African nation of six million people is now one of the biggest sources of migrants who take the perilous journey into Sudan and then across Libya before finally setting out to sea towards Europe’s shores. There is no civil war in Eritrea, nor has there been an international military intervention. “What Eritreans desperately try to escape is a dictatorship that sounds close to being Africa’s equivalent of North Korea.”

Western Balkans

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica Genocide, there was considerable coverage in the Western Balkans media over the participation or non-participation of representatives from Serbia at the 11 July commemoration ceremony. Serbian media also devoted space to a proposed UK Security-Council resolution that was to call on UN member states to mark 11 July as an official day of remembrance. Some Serb leaders and commentators complained that the resolution mentioned “genocide” more often than “reconciliation”.

The Irish Times reported on 27 June on the effort spearheaded by ICMP to account for the missing following the end of the conflict in former Yugoslavia. “The dead belatedly have the dignity of an individual resting place and headstone, their remains and identities rescued from the mass graves into which they were dumped. The article quotes ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger on the pioneering effort in the Western Balkans. “It was quite revolutionary. Before, you basically had the Geneva Conventions that defined what warring parties should do during conflict, but in the western Balkans and now Syria and elsewhere, we see that warring parties don’t protect people. Sometimes, they massacre them. So our mandate said what states should do after the war.”

On 4 June Balkan Insight reported  that the Croatian and Serbian commissions dealing with the issue of persons missing from the 1990s conflicts have agreed on the number of people on the list. According to both commissions there are 1,606 Croat and Serb missing who were living in Croatia between 1991 and 1995.

BalkanInsight carried a story on 8 June saying that victims’ associations had observed the 23rd anniversary of the killing of 438 men in Zvornik in north-eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina. On 8 June 1992, more than 190 men were killed at Gero’s slaughterhouse and 88 at a school in Drinjaca and 160 at a school in Karakaj.

The InSerbia news portal reported on 9 June that the Association of Families of the Kidnapped and Murdered in Kosovo-Metohija (KiM) had called on Serbian Foreign Minister and OSCE chairman Ivica Dacic to raise the issue of the liberation of Serbs who were abducted in the southern Serbian province. The Association urged Dacic to demand that Europe and the U.S. “order the Kosovo parliament to release the Serbs immediately“. If Dacic fails to do this, they said, they will call for his dismissal. A total of 1,441 persons were kidnapped or went missing in the period from January 1998 to November 2001, before, during and after the armed conflicts in KiM, InSerbia reports. According to the Serbian government’s Commission on Missing Persons, searches are still ongoing for around 500 kidnapped whose fate remains unknown. InSerbia News reported on 25 June that a total of 1,654 missing persons – including 535 Serbs and other non-Albanians – are currently being sought in the territory of Kosovo-Metohija, according to the head of the Serbian government commission on missing persons, Veljko Odalovic. “That is an enormous number, regardless of the fact that we have solved more than 1,700 cases so far,” Odalovic said on the 16th anniversary of the kidnapping and killing of over 50 Serb civilians in Metohija’s Istok municipality in June 1999.

Balkan Insight carried a story on 16 June reporting that a Belgrade court has acquitted six former members of the ‘Sima’s Chetniks’ paramilitary group of killing 28 Roma civilians, including three children, raping and torturing three women and destroying a mosque near the Bosnian town of Zvornik in 1992. The presiding judge said that although the court had “established without doubt” that the men were there when killings took place in July 1992, there was not enough evidence to convict them.

On 19 June Balkan Insight reported  that police in Bosnia and Herzegovina had arrested eight former Croatian Defense Council fighters on suspicion that they committed war crimes against Bosniak prisoners detained in Ljubuski in south-west Bosnia and Herzegovina between April 1993 and March 1994. According to the State Prosecutor, about 200 Bosniaks, including women and children, were detained and held in inhumane conditions, tortured, abused, beaten and robbed.

The Military Times from the US carried a story on 18 June that lawyers of a former leader of rebel Serbs in Croatia are urging the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal to drop the case against him because he is terminally ill with brain cancer. In an urgent motion released Thursday by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, lawyers for Goran Hadzic say “no reasonable prospect remains of bringing criminal proceedings against Mr. Hadzic to completion” because of his limited life expectancy. They are calling for the case to be halted altogether or permanently stayed. Hadzic was arrested in 2011.

BalkanInsight reported on 8 June that police are investigating media reports about the alleged large-scale kidnapping of illegal migrants from the Middle East by gangs who are said to be holding them for ransom, and that migrants from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen are being held for ransom by gangs in at least one Macedonian village. The UK’s Channel 4 News said that migrants who were initially promised safe passage by rail through Macedonia are being pulled off the train in their hundreds by a gang near the town of Kumanovo, forced to walk two hours to the village of Vaksince and held and abused there in an overcrowded house until they pay a ransom.