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.
In April the European Union scrambled to produce a credible and humane response to a series of fatal incidents in the Mediterranean involving migrants seeking refuge from instability in the Middle East and parts of Africa. The EU had faced widespread criticism for what was perceived as its callous indifference to the migration crisis.
On 10 April the BBC reported an announcement by Medecins Sans Frontieres that it planned to launch a search and rescue mission to save migrants trying to reach Europe by boat. The aid agency said it would operate a 40-meter ship, the MY Phoenix, from May to October. MSF rejected UK government claims that such services encourage more people-smuggling ships. It said its small operation, to be run with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), would see the MY Phoenix staffed by a medical team including two doctors and a nurse as well as high-speed inflatable boats and surveillance drones. The Italian navy’s search and rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, ended in November 2014 after some EU members said they could not afford to fund it. In 2014 an estimated 3,400 migrants, mostly from Africa, died while trying to make the treacherous crossing into Europe.
On 15 April the BBC reported that about 400 migrants were feared drowned after their boat capsized off Libya. The report cited testimony given by survivors to Save the Children. The Italian coast guard had rescued 144 people on 13 April and launched an air and sea search operation in hopes of rescuing others. Save the Children said that many of the survivors were “young men, probably minors”. The European Union said that more than 7,000 migrants have been rescued from the Mediterranean since 10 April. Survivors said the latest tragedy happened after the boat, carrying about 550 migrants in total, overturned a day after leaving Libya.
The Guardian reported the same story noting that Mare Nostrum, the Italian-run search-and-rescue operation that ended in November 2014, had saved up to 100,000 lives. In the words of one British minister, Baroness Anelay, Mare Nostrum created “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”. Six months on, the facts suggest otherwise, The Guardian said. The number of people who attempted to cross the sea to Italy in the first quarter of 2015 was only fractionally smaller than the number who crossed in the same period last year. In January and February, when stormy seas usually act as a deterrent to all but the bravest, there were even higher numbers than in 2014.
On 16 April the Independent reported that a human trafficker had thrown a dead migrant to the sharks in the latest horror story to emerge from the deadly exodus from North Africa. Police from the Sicilian city of Ragusa arrested the suspected trafficker from Guinea who arrived at the port of Pozzallo on 13 April with a group of migrants after their dinghy was rescued by a Maltese vessel. Some of the refugees said the suspect had thrown the migrant’s corpse overboard to deter sharks that were following their stricken vessel. The Independent reported that there were 10 separate rescue operations in the Channel of Sicily on 13 April, adding that nearly 500 asylum seekers drowned in the Mediterranean in the first three months of this year, compared with 46 in the first three months of 2014.
The BBC reported on 16 April that 15 Muslim migrants had been arrested after they allegedly threw 12 Christians overboard following a row on a boat heading to Italy, according to Italian police.
On 20 April The BBC reported Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s call for more European Union action on sea migration. Demanding a summit on the issue, Mr Renzi said trafficking was “a plague in our continent” and bemoaned the lack of European solidarity. He singled out Libya as the key problem, saying it was the starting point for about 90 percent of the migrants reaching Italy by sea. He said more rescue boats was not the issue, rather it was stopping the boats from departing.
The BBC reported the following day that the Tunisian captain of the boat that had capsized off Libya on Sunday 19 April, killing hundreds of migrants, had been charged with reckless multiple homicide. The BBC also reported on 21 April that Italian prosecutors believe the Captain, who faces multiple homicide charges, had crashed the boat by mistake against a merchant rescue ship. The capsize was the deadliest recorded in the Mediterranean, the UN said. After speaking to the survivors, the UN refugee agency said that about 800 people had died in Sunday’s sinking, including children aged between 10 and 12. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said deaths in 2015 were 30 times higher than the same period last year and could rise to 30,000.
On 20 April Amnesty International called on European governments to prioritize a search and rescue plan to prevent the escalating death toll of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean. “Refugees and migrants have been drowning off the coast of Libya at a rate of around 100 a week since the beginning of the year. This is a humanitarian crisis that needs an immediate and concerted European response, not more hand-wringing and denial,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Director. On 22 April Amnesty published a Blueprint for Action calling on European governments to take immediate and effective steps to end the migration catastrophe. The document, Europe’s sinking shame: The failure to save refugees and migrants at sea, documents testimonies of shipwreck survivors, details the challenges and limitations of current search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean and sets out ways in which this can be remedied.
On 23 April the BBC reported that European leaders had decided to triple funding for search-and-rescue operations aimed at migrant boats in the Mediterranean following crisis talks in Brussels. The EU will also look at ways to capture and destroy smugglers’ boats and deploy immigration officers to non-EU countries, officials said. Several EU member states have promised more ships and other resources. The boost in funding to some €120m (£86m) brings spending back up to about the level of Mare Nostrum. Several member states pledged additional naval resources on 23 April. The UK – in the past a leading advocate of reducing naval patrols – said it would contribute helicopter carrier HMS Bulwark, two patrol boats and three helicopters. Germany, France and Belgium also offered ships.
Human Rights Watch issued a statement on 23 April noting that that the commitment by European Union heads of state to triple the capacity of Frontex operations in the Mediterranean is an important step towards preventing migrant deaths at sea, but noted that at its extraordinary summit on 23 April the EU remained vague about whether Frontex ships would be deployed off the Libyan coast where migrant boats are sinking. “It’s not enough to increase EU boats at sea if they remain focused on protecting Europe’s borders rather than the people at sea who are dying trying to get there,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch. In an open letter and video message released on 22 April, Roth also urged EU leaders to show more generosity in refugee resettlement and to ensure that any immigration or asylum cooperation with origin or transit countries does not engender or entrench human rights abuses.
Newsweek reported on 7 April on disappearances in Latin America, noting that between 1974 and 1982, at least 10,000 Argentinians vanished during that country’s military dictatorship; in Guatemala, an estimated 70,000 people were killed or disappeared in 1982 and 1983 during Efraín Ríos Montt’s rule, and in Mexico “the issue of forced disappearance has roiled the country because of the incestuous relationship between law enforcement and its main adversaries, the country’s vicious and powerful narco gangs.”
On 13 April the BBC reported that the Colombian attorney general has revealed that 22 generals are being investigated for their alleged roles in the murder of civilians in the “false positives” scandal – the murder of civilians whose bodies were then passed off as those of Farc rebels or paramilitaries to boost combat kill rates. Eight hundred members of the security forces have been jailed so far. Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre told the first conference in Colombia for victims of extra-judicial killings that some of the generals were still on active service and others had retired. He said more than 5,000 members of the security forces had been implicated. The “false positive” scandal erupted in 2008 when it was found that a group of poor young men had been recruited from the slums of Bogota, promised well-paying jobs in the province of Norte de Santander, then murdered in cold blood and their bodies presented in rebel uniforms as having been killed in combat. From then on many other cases of “false positives” came to light across the country and prosecutors now have thousands of cases on their books.
The Independent reported on 20 April on the case of Colonel Orlando Inocente Montano Morales, who was working in a sweet factory on the outskirts of Boston when his inglorious record in El Salvador’s civil war finally caught up with him. Col Montano Morales had been quietly living in the United States for a decade when in May 2011 he and 19 former colleagues were indicted by a Spanish court on suspicion of participation in the 1989 massacre of six Jesuits priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. The massacre was one of the most notorious crimes of the war, which between 1980 and 1992 left 80,000 people dead, 8,000 missing and one million displaced. The vast majority of the atrocities were committed by US-backed armed forces and paramilitaries, according to the subsequent United Nations Truth Commission.
The issue of enforced disappearances continues to dominate political debate in Mexico. On 1 April, six months after 43 students were forcibly disappeared in southern Mexico, the Latin American Tribune reported that a group of international human rights organizations had organized and signed a petition calling on the Mexican government to fully support the work of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights-appointed Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos y Expertas Independientes, GIEI), which has been tasked with reviewing the case of the 43 students. On 19 March, the GIEI released a report on its first trip to Mexico (March 1-19). The Group’s initial requests to the Mexican authorities are that they continue the search for the missing students; that the case be treated as a case of enforced disappearance; that they ensure the preservation of evidence; that they provide medical attention to those affected by this crime, including the student’s families and Aldo Gutierrez, the student who remains in a coma as a result of injuries sustained during the September attack; and that they guarantee the Group’s access to all needed information including a digital copy of the case file, and an interview with military officials in the region where the abductions took place.
The Huffington Post reported on 2 April that family and colleagues of the 43 students have grown into a civilian movement known as “Ayotzinapa” that is shining a stark light the excesses and failures of a corrupt government structure which operates in deep collusion with drug lords and corporate interests, adding that “the case of Ayotzinapa is a window onto a larger pattern of forced disappearances that plagues the nation as a whole.”
On 10 April the Aleteia news portal reported that the office of the Mexican Attorney General has revealed that, of the 601 bodies found between 1 December 2006 and 28 February 2015, in 174 secret mass graves spread throughout the country, 80 percent have not yet been identified. The Attorney General’s office indicated that not all cases are documented “because some states do not work in coordination” with the office. The media report notes that the number of individuals found in mass graves is a fraction of the 20,000 reported missing over a period of eight years.
The Eurasia Review news portal reported on 17 April s that the detention and disappearance of social and human rights activists in Mexico, the assassination of community leaders and the arrest of others for political reasons are part of “a government policy” aimed at discouraging organizations’ resistance to the abuse of power and repression, according to the National Front of the Struggle for Socialism (FNLS), a mostly-peasant political organization that is present in nine of the country’s states. The FNLS maintains that in Mexico there are more than 110,000 cases of detainees/disappeared, not just the 23,000 acknowledged by the Ministry of the Interior.
On 20 April BuzzFeed News carried a story on the report issued by the GIEI international expert group, which called on the Mexican government to search two new locations for the 43 students and open new lines of inquiry. The group also urged the government to investigate attempts at coercion against the students’ relatives. The government must also search for other mass graves in the area where the students were last seen, provide sharper satellite images of the trash dump where it has centered its investigation, and protect the families of the disappeared students from being re-victimized, GIEI said. After the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights ordered Mexican authorities to conduct a thorough investigation of the disappearance, the government requested international assistance. The GIEI, comprised of three lawyers, one judge, and a doctor from Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, and Spain, was created in November. It released its second report on the case on 20 April in Mexico City after going through almost 80,000 pages pertaining to the case docket and traveling to the town of Iguala in Guerrero Sate with surviving students to reconstruct the events leading to the abductions. The experts said they are analyzing a constitutional reform on forced disappearances that has been drafted by Mexico’s Congress.
On 1 April NBC news reported that UN officials have cataloged mass graves, the murder of enslaved women and girls, and the use of children as cannon fodder by Boko Haram. Coalition forces of Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger have reportedly had some success in recapturing territory previously held by Boko Haram.
The BBC reported on 14 April that ceremonies are to be staged around the world to mark one year since more than 200 girls were abducted by Boko Haram. A procession was to be held in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, with 219 girls taking part to represent each missing girl.
The BBC also reported that more than 50 of the girls were seen alive three weeks ago, according to one woman who said she saw the girls in the north-eastern Gwoza town before the Boko Haram militants were driven out of the town by regional forces.
On 15 April The BRnow news journal from North Carolina reported that one year after the abduction of the schoolgirls from Chibok, more than 800,000 children remain displaced by the militant group’s onslaught in Nigeria and neighboring countries, according to a UNICEF report issued on 13 April. The number of displaced children – among 1.5 million people forced to flee their homes in the region – has more than doubled within the past year in northeast Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad, UNICEF stated in the report titled “Missing Childhoods: The impact of armed conflict on children in Nigeria and beyond.”
Elsewhere in Africa, enforced disappearances were attributed to governments rather than insurgents. On 8 April AFP reported on 7 April that Democratic Republic of Congo authorities on Tuesday denied that a mass grave discovered in the capital Kinshasa contained the bodies of opposition supporters. “The bodies of 421 people were buried on 19 March in the capital’s Maluku district,” Kinshasa’s interim governor Luzolanu Mavema told reporters. “Among these were around 300 stillborn babies and foetuses abandoned in streams, rivers and even hospitals.” He added that there were 23 abandoned bodies, those of 34 “drifters” and 64 unidentified corpses. Mavema said the government has “absolutely nothing to hide”, and dismissed rumors that the common grave might contain the bodies of government opponents who were killed during protests and mass arrests in January. The protesters had denounced moves they claimed were designed to delay presidential elections and allow President Joseph Kabila to remain in power in defiance of the constitution. Up to 42 people died during the violent protests.
Human Rights Watch issued a statement on 15 April calling on the DRC authorities to release seven peaceful activists who HRW says have been wrongfully detained, some since 15 March.
Amnesty International issued a statement on 9 April calling on the authorities in Zimbabwe to step up their search efforts for journalist and pro-democracy activist Itai Dzamara, believed to have been a victim of enforced disappearance. A High Court judge last month ordered Zimbabwean police and state security agents to search for Dzamara, who was abducted from a barber’s shop in Harare’s Glen View suburb on 9 March. The abductors are said to have accused him of stealing cattle before handcuffing him, forcing him into a white truck with concealed number plates, and driving off. Local activists have expressed fear that state security agents are behind the abduction.
Reporters Without Borders reported on 16 April that there is a continuing lack of progress in the investigation into French reporter Guy-André Kieffer’s abduction 11 years ago in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. The 11th anniversary of the disappearance of Kieffer, who also had Canadian citizenship, was 17 April. When French President François Hollande visited Côte d’Ivoire in July 2014, Reporters Without Borders asked him to request the creation of a special commission of enquiry or the formation a joint judicial investigative unit by the French and Ivorian judges in charge of the case. On 20 October, the Elysée Palace said solving the case continued to be a “priority for France” and promised to monitor “the progress of this investigation being conducted by the judicial authorities of the two countries concerned, France and Côte d’Ivoire.” When a Reporters Without Borders team visited Côte d’Ivoire in May 2014, President Alassane Ouattara undertook to do everything possible “to ensure that light is shed on this case and to find out what happened.” However, the Ivorian authorities have yet to respond to requests for information made to the in November 2014.
The actions of Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and parts of North Africa have been characterized by enforced disappearances apparently carried out as a matter of policy. However, enforced disappearances have also been attributed to the fragility of the rule of law and an erosion of accountability on the part of military and political authorities due to continuing instability.
The Alkarama human rights organization reported on 1 April that it had called on the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances (WGEID) to raise the cases of Samir Obaid and Ammar Faraj eith the Syrian authorities. The two Syrian nationals have been missing since their arrest by Syrian intelligence officials in the coastal city of Jableh, in the Latakia Governorate, in October 2011 and December 2012 respectively.
Alkarama reported on 8 April that it had written to the WGEID about the disappearance of Abdel Muti Ibrahim, a Syrian citizen, from Idlib Governorate. It described the case as the latest in a long list of cases of enforced disappearance that Alkarama and the Human Rights Guardians NGO have documented during the four-year-long conflict in Syria. On 15 July 2012, Ibrahim, a 28-year-old political activist was arrested at a checkpoint in Salqin in the Idlib governorate, on the northwest border with Turkey by members of the Syrian Army wearing military uniforms who did not provide any arrest warrant. Witnesses reported that he was then brought to the Military Security Branch in Idlib. His family have been unable to ascertain his whereabouts since then.
Alkarama issued a statement on 14 April saying that it has written to the WGEID regarding the case of Mohamad Amir Mashki, a 16-year-old secondary school student who disappeared after his arrest on 8 October 2012 at an Air Force Intelligence checkpoint close to Al-Zabadani, a city in south-western Syria 10 km from the Lebanese border.
On 3 April PressTV reported that Iraqi forces that had retaken the town of Tikrit from Islamic State had found a mass grave containing hundreds of soldiers; identify cards have been found with the victims. The report said Iraqi authorities had prevented anyone from opening the graves, ensuring that a team of experts would be able to inspect the site and transfer the bodies to Baghdad for DNA testing. On 7 April the BBC reported that suspected mass graves of up to 1,700 captured Iraqi soldiers killed by Islamic State (IS) had been found in Tikrit. The sites are near the former US Army base, Camp Speicher. Iraqi forensic teams had begun to excavate 12 graves following the city’s recent liberation from IS, the report said.
Several stories in April highlighted the remarkable ability of modern forensic investigation to illuminate historical cases involving unidentified bodies.
The Telegraph newspaper reported on 1 April that a lost medieval cemetery discovered under Cambridge University during building work contained graves that had been pre-dug in anticipation of winter deaths. The mass cemetery, which was far larger than the small burial ground which archaeologists had expected, contained around 1,300 burials, including about 400 complete skeletons. And experts made the sinister discovery that many of the skeletons did not fit their graves. An Archaeological Journal report on the excavation said: “This suggests that some, but not all of the graves may have been dug in advance of being needed. “One possibility is that this occurred prior to the winter, when ground conditions would have potentially made digging graves considerably more difficult.” The vast majority of burials were without coffins, many even without shrouds, suggesting the cemetery was primarily used to serve the poor.
On 6 April the Newsmax news portal reported that a 200-year-old skeleton has been found under a parking lot by archeologists working for the Belgian government, and it is believed to be the first complete set of bones recovered from the Battle of Waterloo. The skeleton was uncovered in June 2012 near the Lion’s Mound area of the Waterloo battlefield just south of Brussels and was recently identified as that of Friedrich Brandt, 23, a Hanoverian hunchback. Brandt, who trained in the East Sussex resort of Bexhill-on-Sea, died after being shot with a musket. The musket ball was found along with his skeleton, between the ribs. Roughly 50,000 soldiers died at the Battle of Waterloo, with many dumped into mass graves and many cremated.
The BBC reported on 15 April that the remains of nearly 400 US servicemen killed at Pearl Harbor are to be exhumed so that they can be identified and given individual burials. The sailors and Marines were aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma when it was struck by Japanese torpedoes in 1941. The comingled remains were buried in Hawaii.