The missing in Asia


By Bert Segier

On 26 April, Sri Lankan Ambassador to The Netherlands A.M.J. Sadiq hosted a meeting of Asian Ambassadors in The Hague to discuss the issue of missing persons in Asia. Participants included the ambassadors of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Asian countries are faced with diverse causes of missing and disappeared persons, which include armed conflict, migration, natural disasters, manmade disasters and criminal acts. Numbers of the missing are calculated in hundreds of thousands – and the number of those who are left behind to search for the missing are much greater. Consequently, those affected by the issue are not just the direct victims themselves but their friends, family members and society at large.

At the April meeting in The Hague, the Sri Lankan Ambassador rightly stressed that “the issue of missing persons is a global phenomenon, and Asian countries are unfortunately also affected by it, through a variety of causes.“  Conversely, in recent months, the question of Asian missing and disappeared persons has gained worldwide attention in light of the Asian migrants’ crisis and related human smuggling and trafficking issues.

According to the UN’s International Migrants Stock Dataset 2015, of 244 million migrants worldwide, 75 million live in Asia, and 144 million come from Asia. The Migration Policy Institute, an independent think-tank based in Washington, DC, dedicated to the analysis of the movement of people worldwide, notes that all countries in Asia experience both emigration and immigration, and often transit migration. It is possible to differentiate between mainly destination countries (Brunei, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan), countries with both significant immigration and emigration (Malaysia and Thailand), and countries which are primarily departure countries (Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam).

Migratory patterns include movement to Western countries, contract labor to the Middle East, intra-Asian labor migration, movement of highly skilled workers, student mobility, and refugee movements. Most of these movements include substantial illegal migration. This often takes the form of tourist visa-holders overstaying their permits, but smuggling and trafficking of people is also frequent.

Southeast Asia deserves particular attention. UNHCR released a report on Mixed Maritime Movements in Southeast Asia (See ICMP February Newsletter) showing the most important Asian maritime migration route – from the Bay of Bengal and across the Malacca Straits. Between January 2014 and June 2015, more than 88,000 migrants made this journey.

According to the latest global figures of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 56 migrants have been reported dead in Southeast Asia since the beginning of 2016. Twenty-one died in April alone. In view of the fact that the nature and scale of the overall migration is not fully understood or fully documented, the actual number of migrant fatalities is likely to be considerably higher. The total number of reported dead migrants in Southeast Asia in 2015 was 787.

ICMP’s first engagement in Asia involved helping the authorities in Thailand to account for and identify the victims of the December 2004 tsunami. Since then it has cooperated with the authorities in the Philippines and Vietnam. In October 2015 ICMP launched a series of consultations in Sri Lanka with a view to contributing to a comprehensive, countrywide effort to account for the large numbers of missing from the 25-year conflict.

ICMP supports the protection and fulfillment of rights of families of the missing, in Asia and around the world. ICMP supports the protection and fulfillment of rights of families of the missing, in Asia and around the world.  Within its efforts to assist governments in fulfilling their obligation to account for missing and disappeared persons in conformity with human rights standards and rule of law principles, ICMP provides assistance with respect to establishing legal and policy frameworks necessary to safeguard the rights of victims to truth, justice and equal access to social and economic rights, among others.

ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger agreed with Ambassador Sadiq that Asian governments face profound challenges related to missing and disappeared persons. Mass migration, natural disasters, conflict and social unrest raise specific missing persons issues. However, effective strategies have been developed and governments and other stakeholders can address the issue successfully by working with one another and with international organizations. ICMP can make a continuing contribution to creative and effective efforts to address missing persons issues whether in the context of migration, post-conflict recovery or disaster recovery.

For more information on the activities of ICMP in Asia, please visit