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Families of people who have gone missing on Mediterranean migration routes spoke about their experience at a Profiles of the Missing event organized by ICMP and the Swiss Embassy in Rome on 11 June.
Family members described their response to personal loss and their continuing efforts to find their relatives, and they called for the rights of survivors to be upheld.
“Profiles of the Missing” is an ICMP public forum that brings together families of missing persons to raise public awareness, make recommendations, and demonstrate to policymakers that the issue of missing persons is an indispensable element in addressing regional security, conflict-prevention, peace building and international justice. The active participation of surviving relatives is central to the Profiles approach.
The first Profiles event was held in The Hague in 2016 and the second, a year later in Stockholm. In late 2017, ICMP received funding from the Swiss government for a program that includes fostering cooperation among Mediterranean countries to tackle the issue of missing migrants.
The event on 11 June was organized in partnership with the civil society organizations Migrants of the Mediterranean, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, Yazda, the Eritrean Refugee Rights Initiative and the Italian Coalition for Freedom and Civil Rights, CILD.
Opening the event, Switzerland’s Ambassador to Italy, Giancarlo Kessler, stressed that the evening was about sharing the experience of families because “knowing more about your perspective on the issue is key”.
Ambassador Kessler stressed that, under international law, states have a duty to investigate cases of missing persons, including missing migrants, while families have the right to know the fate of their relatives. Although Switzerland is not a Mediterranean country, he said, “we are convinced of the urgency of the matter as a human rights as well as a humanitarian issue.”
ICMP Commissioner Judge Sanji Monageng conveyed greetings from Her Majesty Queen Noor, who was unable to participate in the Profiles of the Missing event, and stressed that HM Queen Noor “along with my fellow commissioners, stands resolutely behind the initiative to ensure cooperation in accounting for missing migrants.”
Judge Monageng said members of the panel who had direct experience of the migration crisis were examples of courage, solidarity and hope. “Courage, solidarity and hope, however, will only exercise a compelling influence on events if they are allied with policy,” she said, noting that the Profiles of the Missing format brings together “the disparate but complementary elements of policy and experience.”
“Today, across the Middle East and across Africa, huge numbers of people are on the move. They are fleeing violence and poverty and their migration is accompanied by suffering and by systematic criminal exploitation,” Judge Monageng said. “It is essential that we respond to the crisis with solidarity and compassion and also with a robust approach that is firmly based on the rule of law.”
She alluded to “the gender aspect of the missing migrants issue”, noting that a majority of those who go missing are male, which means that “female headed households in countries of migrant origin are struggling in difficult conditions, often in patriarchal societies.”
Judge Monageng noted that Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Malta and other European countries “are all grappling with this issue and developing appropriate responses. Just as the families of the missing migrants need our support, these countries also need our support to meet their obligations to secure the rights of surviving families.”
Moderator Philipp Zahn expressed support for the panelists, noting that “it’s not easy to talk about personal suffering.” In the context of a broader discussion of regional security, conflict prevention, peacebuilding and international justice, he said “the important thing is how relatives of people who are missing can cope with this situation and who they can address in the future.”
Federico Soda, the Director of IOM’s Coordination Office for the Mediterranean, noted that “in Libya, there is suffering at the hands of traffickers, smugglers, and other criminal networks, and almost systemic abuse of women.” He described the current migration pattern as “fluid” and said there has been a dramatic change in the methods used by smugglers. “For the last few years they have mostly been using very small unseaworthy rubber dinghies, sometimes leaving without fuel, sometimes without an engine and definitely not prepared to make the crossing.”
Mr Soda distinguished between the major routes. “In the eastern Mediterranean, which is more dangerous this year than last year, we have primarily refugee populations coming out of the Middle East and parts of Asia. At its peak in 2015, probably the top five nationalities accounted for 80 to 85 percent of all migrants in this sector. In the central Mediterranean, there are something like 60 different nationalities. Countries of origin range from Senegal to the Comoros to Bangladesh.”
“One of the main issues is, of course, the absence of a state-led or an EU-led or a multilateral-led response to saving lives at sea, and we are seeing this play out all the time,” Mr Soda said.
Luigi Maria Vignali, Director General for Italian Citizens Abroad and Migration Policies at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Italy, said Italy is seeking European solidarity in managing migration flows. He said that while there is a humanitarian element, “in my view, the activity of ICMP and the Italian Special Commissioner is very much related to human rights – it’s an international obligation. We have pushed very strongly for a Euro-African partnership on managing migration flows. We strongly believe that identifying missing persons can help to build bridges between Europe and Africa. We are managing the same flows; we are working on the same concept: one of partnership. We can build bridges between the northern Mediterranean and the southern Mediterranean, a very powerful message of compassion and solidarity and empathy.”
Noting that his country has established the Office of the Extraordinary Commissioner, Mr Vignali said Italy can share best practice with partners, and he concluded by saying that “We strongly believe that ICMP can fill the role of a strong coordinating body.”
Walid Khalil Murad from Iraq, who lost his wife, his three children, his sister, two nephews and a niece when the migrant vessel on which they were traveling capsized off the Greek coast in December 2015, described the Da’esh attack on his home in Sinjar and his family’s subsequent journey. “We had two options, either face death or reach a European country.” At the first attempt to cross over to Greece “we stayed in the sea for seven hours . . . and we were arrested by Turkish police. We tried again to escape in a small boat that was not adequate.” In the final attempt “we tried to obey the smugglers because they were armed. We felt the waves; we asked the captain to go back to the shore, but they refused. We tried to send our location by mobile phone but no one responded. Maybe they thought we were terrorists. Near Farmakonisi the captain switched off the engine. We were about ten minutes away from the coast when the boat capsized with all my family members. I and five others survived, two people were rescued. We were carried by the waves to the Greek coast.”
“My family was lost before my eyes,” Walid said. “I couldn’t do anything I can still hear their voices calling for my help. I cannot forget. My children calling me: father, help us! Father, father, please help us! My sister too called to me, asking me to rescue her and her children. How can I forget these horrible memories! How can I forget these horrific moments! These circumstances were the hardest in my life. We were not able to identify their bodies or to find them.”
Bakary Jamada, who travelled from the Gambia across Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, only reached the coast after escaping from kidnappers in Libya. “They hit me with a gun, an AK 47. Still I have a problem with my head, my brain is no good. During that imprisonment, we drank water from the toilet. Some people got sick and some finally died in the prison. During the imprisonment, there was massive beating. We slept on the floor, without blankets and it was very cold, which caused pneumonia. They told me just to pay the money for my release. Whenever they told me, they said you have to pay 1,000 dinars. I said I don’t have money and my family don’t have money to pay this fee. The more I said that, the more they beat me. My family cannot afford that so I refused to call them. They kept on beating me, hitting me with guns. I passed out. I escaped.”
Bakary spoke about his friend, Mustafa, who had helped him, and also described the difficulties experienced by his family back home. “My mother didn’t have any information about me. She tried her level best to get information about me. But I was in prison. I was nowhere to be found. She was very sick. She was admitted to hospital several times. When I reached Italy, I called my mother. She couldn’t believe it was me and that I was alive. I was very sorry about what happened to my mother.”
Kazem Othman from Syria lost his four-year old son when the boat carrying the family from Turkey to Greece capsized and his son was picked up by a different rescue vessel. “My son and my nephew went missing, my wife stayed two hours in the water and then she was rescued. I was wearing a lifejacket and I noted that those who died were not wearing lifejackets. Fishermen retrieved the luggage but couldn’t identify any children although they were wearing lifejackets. Finally, I managed to get my family to Germany.”
Kazem immediately set about trying to find his son but received little help from the authorities. An individual who offered assistance turned out to be more interested in extorting money.
It was suggested to Kazem that his son might have been adopted by a family in Thessaloniki, and a photograph was produced to support this. “I am sure and his mother is sure that he is our son,” he said, but the family refused to meet him.
“There is a cemetery called ‘the number cemetery’,” Kazem said. “There are around 140 graves there just numbered.” He concluded with an expression of profound sadness. “We are going through hell. I have nothing to add.”
Journalist and human rights activist Meron Estefanos explained the complexity of many missing migrant cases. “One mother lost her son in Eritrea. He is being held incommunicado by the government, and she doesn’t know if he’s alive or not. The second disappeared in Egypt and the third disappeared on the way to Italy. This mother was not able to bury or know the whereabouts of her children.”
She also described instances where family members have been exploited by unscrupulous people claiming to be able to help them find their missing relatives.
Meron read a poem that cites the numbered white coffins of children. “It is very important that we document,” she said. “It is important that they are recognized by their names and not by numbers.”
Judith Sunderland, the Associate Director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, reviewed the obligations of states to uphold the right to life, to freedom and liberty and security, the right to freedom from torture, the right to remedy, and the right to know the truth. “Governments have obligations regardless of the status of the victims,” she said. “The duty to investigate is heightened when there’s a chance of state actors being involved. It doesn’t matter that the death may be caused in some way by the person’s own behavior – it doesn’t matter that a person willingly got into the boat and then drowned. This does not absolve the state of its duty.”
She noted that the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, now being negotiated at the UN, “includes the important objective of saving lives and coordinating international action on migration”. Key elements would include steps “to improve search and rescue efforts – we’ve been talking a lot about deaths at sea, but we should recognize how many people are lost on land as well; establish channels and contact points through which families can look for missing migrants; collect systematic data regarding human remains; and try to identify and repatriate remains of deceased migrants. These are all incredibly important commitments that will uphold rights.”
Moderator Philipp Zahn encouraged members of the audience to contribute to the discussion and at the end of the evening he suggested that the Profiles of the Missing could itself be viewed as a kind of commemoration.
ICMP Chair Thomas Miller thanked the panelists and participants, noting that, “we have been able to hear the stories of survivors, and we have been able to learn about the concerns and proposals of policymakers. This has facilitated a better understanding of the challenges that we face – and also some of the solutions that could be developed.”
Ambassador Miller reminded the audience that earlier in the day ICMP had brought representatives of Cyprus, Greece, Malta and Italy, as well as other countries and organizations, together in Rome to begin developing a Joint Process to address the issue of missing migrants in the Mediterranean region, and that in the afternoon a roundtable with technical experts and others had begun to explore key aspects of the Joint Process.
“The issue of missing migrants is complex, but I think today’s meetings have, among other things, highlighted a rather simple underlying fact. This is that if countries share information and coordinate their responses to the migration crisis, there is a very real chance of reducing the suffering that is witnessed daily in the Mediterranean.”
Ambassador Miller said ICMP is completely focused on finding solutions. “We know the challenge is huge, but we believe we can lift some of the burden from countries, by developing and proposing practical responses.”