Maritime Tragedy Highlights Need For International Response to Migration Crisis

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1 July 2016: The successful operation carried out this week by Italian naval engineers to raise the wreckage of a vessel that sank in April last year off the coast of Libya with the loss of hundreds of lives, highlights the urgent need for a coherent international response to the issue of missing persons from the refugee crisis, ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger said today.

“The Italian authorities have responded to the crisis in a commendable and forthright way, allocating resources to maritime safety and launching initiatives to account for missing migrants, but the scale of the loss of life in the case of this vessel highlights in the most tragic and brutal way the fact that more must be done by the International Community as a whole,” Bomberger said.

The ship is estimated to have been carrying anywhere from 700 to 1,000 refugees, and hundreds may have perished as a result of being confined to lower decks on the overcrowded vessel. Fewer than 200 bodies were recovered, and hundreds more are expected to be found inside the wreck.

“The process of identifying persons as a consequence of these maritime disasters will be a complex one that includes working with those who are searching for missing relatives and working with countries that are faced with large numbers of unidentified mortal remains,” Bomberger said. She added, “ICMP has 20 years of experience in helping countries address large numbers of missing persons and maintains a database system that is designed to work with families of the missing on the one hand and with government authorities on the other to identify missing persons.”

“It will be very difficult to reach out to the families of the missing who are coming from so many countries and who are often fleeing conflict or political persecution in their own countries.  ICMP’s on-line portal to its database will be an effective tool in registering information from surviving families, that can later be linked to information from countries such as Italy,” she added.

“There are hundreds of thousands of families around the world today who live with the ‘ambiguous loss’ of a loved one who has gone missing as a result of conflict, crime, forced migration, human rights violations or disasters,” she said. “This causes immense personal agony, but it also affects social and political stability. When large numbers of people are missing, which is the case today in regard to Syria, Iraq and several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, a much larger number of people in the affected countries simply cannot move forward with their lives.”

Bomberger noted the proactive approach of the Italian authorities. “In May, Italian Government Special Commissioner for Missing Persons Vittorio Piscitelli and I signed a cooperation agreement under which ICMP and the Italian authorities will work together to improve the procedure for identifying migrants who have drowned in the Mediterranean. Once we have funding for this effort, we look forward to working with the Special Commissioner’s Office on the collection, sharing and distribution of information that can help to account for missing migrants.”

ICMP is a treaty-based intergovernmental organization whose mandate is to secure the cooperation of governments, civil society organizations, judicial institutions, international organizations and others in locating and identifying missing persons from conflict, human rights abuses, disasters, crime, migration and other causes. As part of its programs, ICMP operates the world’s leading high-throughput DNA human identification standing capacity and the only comprehensive data management and protection platform focused on locating and identifying missing and disappeared persons through an accessible, online portal.

ICMP was established at the initiative of US President Clinton in 1996 following the G-7 summit in Lyon, France to address the issue of missing persons from the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. In 2003 its mandate and sphere of activity were extended by supporting governments, to address the global issue of missing persons. On 15 December 2014, the Foreign Ministers of the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Belgium and Luxembourg signed a Treaty establishing ICMP formally as an intergovernmental organization, with its seat in The Hague. In 2015 the ICMP Treaty was signed by Chile, Cyprus, El Salvador, and Serbia. The Treaty is open for accession by all states.