A Contribution to Addressing the Migration and Refugee Crisis

An Italian Financial Police rescue unit approaches an inflatable dinghy crowded with migrants off the Libyan coast. Photo_ www.businessinsider.com

An Italian Financial Police rescue unit approaches an inflatable dinghy crowded with migrants off the Libyan coast. Photo_ www.businessinsider.com


By the end of September half a million people had crossed the Mediterranean in 2015, well over double the figure for the whole of 2014.

Almost 3,000 people have drowned making the crossing.

And these numbers do not tell the whole story. There are credible reports of large numbers of African migrants dying in the Sahara before they even reach the Mediterranean coast.

The picture of three-year old Alan Kurdi from Syria, whose lifeless body was washed up on the shore of Bodrum in Turkey on 2 September galvanized global opinion. The overcrowded boat on which Alan and his family were trying to reach the Greek island of Kos capsized. Other members of his family also perished.

The image of an innocent child on a beach is profoundly shocking, yet in one respect little Alan differs from hundreds of other drowned migrants – we know his name. There are untold numbers of migrants whose bodies will never be identified, whose families will never learn their fate. In these cases the pain of loss is compounded by the pain of not knowing.

ICMP is currently discussing a formal cooperation agreement with the authorities in Italy in order to address the challenge of locating and identifying missing migrants. In addition, ICMP and IOM have joined forces to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the missing migrants and refugees situation in the Mediterranean region with the dual objective of:

  • Reinforcing the capacity of countries of arrival to meet their obligations to families of the missing, among other things under Articles, 2, 3 and 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which requires states to conduct effective investigations where persons have gone missing; and
  • To explore avenues for repatriation of the remains of the missing to countries of origin.

This will

  • Help countries to discharge their accountability to relatives of the missing located on their territories;
  • Begin a process of assessing policies adopted by countries of origin towards their migrants and informing these countries of the profiles of their emigrants; and
  • Monitor and improve policies affecting those left behind.

IOM and ICMP will gather information through interviews with:

  • Families of missing migrants and refugees in countries of origin;
  • Staff of international organizations, NGOs and community groups working with families of missing migrants, and government authorities where appropriate; and
  • Recent survivors of shipwrecks in the Mediterranean located in the EU.

ICMP and IOM propose to:

  • Conduct interviews with government authorities in destination countries, as well as countries of origin and transit;
  • Conduct site visits and interviews with relevant interlocutors, prosecutors, pathologists and Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) personnel concerned with identifying and eventually repatriating deceased migrants;
  • Employ ICMP’s Integrated Database Management System (iDMS) to process missing persons and family data systematically, as provided by surviving migrants or family members in countries of origin;
  • Provide biological sample and data processing capacities, including secure holding capacities, on the basis of informed, free and express consent of data subjects;
  • Deploy human identification expertise and personnel in the fields of anthropology, genetic sampling, testing as well as DNA matching; and
  • Provide family outreach protocols, forms and expert personnel.

Thousands go missing every year on journeys across inhospitable terrain, on the high seas, and crossing dangerous borders. In Mexico, where the missing persons problem has reached epidemic proportions, tens of thousands of victims are not Mexican, but migrants traveling through Mexico from south and central America en route to the United States. The fault lines between the rich North and the poor South have become dying zones for refugees and migrants.

This is the context in which the IOM-ICMP initiative is being developed. If it can be applied effectively in the Mediterranean region it will be possible to apply a similar approach elsewhere in the world.

The issues surrounding missing migrants and refugees are unusually complex, involving a wide variety of legal, geographical and political factors. Migrants and refugees may be fleeing conflicts which are the subject of competing diplomatic interests; sea crossings bring international maritime law into play; human smuggling and human trafficking – two distinct but interconnected activities – demand different legal and judicial responses; and since they typically pass through several countries and jurisdictions before they reach their final destination, legal considerations in one country may impinge on different issues in a neighboring country when, for example, an undocumented individual goes missing.

ICMP has developed cross-cutting programs which include developing institutional, legal and technical capacities, encouraging the active participation of civil society, providing assistance to justice sector institutions, and maintaining a standing capacity for effective forensic assistance, making it possible to deliver a range of solutions to this multi-faceted problem.

The object is to account for the missing so that the anguish suffered by those who are left behind is mitigated.  Through its joint initiative with IOM, ICMP proposes to make a specific, focused and useful contribution to the global effort to address the current migration crisis.