Global Missing Persons Trends

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.

Southeast Asia

Throughout the month of May, dramatic reports from Southeast Asia highlighted the plight of migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar attempting to reach Malaysia and Indonesia. Tens of thousands have made the journey south, and large numbers have died en route, through drowning or at the hands of people traffickers often with the collusion of corrupt bureaucrats and police. Thousands of Bangladeshi migrants follow the route south and east in search of work. In 2014, the number of people leaving Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat is estimated to have climbed to around 53,000. Some 920 migrants are known to have perished in the Bay of Bengal between September 2014 and March 2015.

On 1 May Human Rights Watch issued a statement  on the discovery of more than 30 bodies at an abandoned human trafficking camp close to the Thai-Malaysian border, calling on the authorities to authorize an independent UN-assisted investigation, commit to publish its findings, and bring those responsible to justice, including any government officials involved. It said the UN and others should urgently press the government in Bangkok “to end official complicity and willful blindness in rampant trafficking in the country”. The BBC reported on the same day  that three Thais and one Myanmar national had been arrested in Thailand on suspicion of human trafficking, after the discovery of the mass grave on a route regularly used by Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar. On 5 May the BBC reported  that two more skeletons of suspected migrants had been found in abandoned camps in Phang Nga province.

On 11 May the BBC reported that nearly 600 people believed to be Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar had been rescued from boats drifting in Indonesian waters. Indonesian authorities and aid agencies said the rescued group had been at sea for about a week.

The Malay Mail reported on 11 May that Thai police were downplaying a probe into more than 50 officers transferred over suspected links to human trafficking, saying the transfers were “standard operating procedure” and that most of the officers were suspected only of negligence. It said Malaysia detained more than one thousand Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladeshis on 11 May. In Thailand, authorities were questioning more than 100 migrants near the country’s border with Malaysia to determine whether they were victims of human trafficking.

The BBC reported on 13 May  that a group of 350 migrants from Myanmar had told an activist by phone that they had been stranded at sea without food or water for four days. The migrants, including 50 women and 84 children, said that many people were falling ill after the boat crew had abandoned them at the weekend. On 15 May the BBC reported  that more than 600 migrants had landed in Aceh province after being rescued by local fishing boats. It said around 2,000 had come ashore in Aceh earlier in the week and were being given medical assistance and food. Since then, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand had been turning boats away, the BBC said.

On 15 May UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein issued a statement  urging governments in the region to take swift action to protect the lives of some 6,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants believed to be still stranded at sea. He praised Indonesia for disembarking 582 migrants on 10 May, and Malaysia for disembarking 1,018 the following day, but said that the pushbacks that had also been taking place were endangering lives. Zeid also expressed alarm at reports that countries in the region were threatening to criminalize vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers who had crossed borders irregularly.

The BBC reported on 20 May  that hundreds of migrants had been rescued by fishermen off the coast of Indonesia. Local officials said more than 370 migrants, including at least 50 women and children, had been at sea for weeks and were starving and dehydrated. This came as ministers from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia held emergency talks in Kuala Lumpur on the migration crisis. One of the rescued migrants, Ubaydul Haque, told the Associated Press they had been at sea for four months, that their engine was not working and that the captain had fled. “We ran out of food, we wanted to enter Malaysia but we were not allowed.”

The International Organization for Migration issued a statement on 19 May, together with UNHCR, OHCHR and the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Migration and Development, emphasizing that search and rescue at sea, disembarkation, and protection of the human rights of refugees and migrants is imperative. “We strongly urge the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand to protect migrants and refugees stranded on vessels in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, to facilitate safe disembarkation, and to give priority to saving lives, protecting rights, and respecting human dignity,” the statement said. It noted that “vulnerable people around the world are moving in search of safety and dignity, fleeing persecution, abject poverty, deprivation, discrimination, and abuse. Such perilous journeys, whether by land, sea, or air, have become a global phenomenon.” It added that in Southeast Asia, “more than 88,000 people have made the dangerous voyage by sea since 2014, including 25,000 who arrived in the first quarter of this year alone. Nearly 1,000 are believed to have perished at sea due to the precarious conditions of the voyage, and an equal number because of mistreatment and privation at the hands of traffickers and abusive smugglers.”

On 20 May Amnesty International issued a statement accusing the Thai, Indonesian and Malaysian authorities of defying international human rights law and their duty to protect, in their approach to the 6,000 migrants stranded at sea. “Many have been on boats in harrowing conditions for more than two months and are in desperate need of food, water and medical care. Refusing to rescue or pushing back the boats may be tantamount to a death sentence. Reports from UNHCR suggest that this unfolding humanitarian crisis has seen at least 300 people die on boats so far in 2015,” the statement said.

On 21 May the BBC carried a statement  by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak that his country would conduct search and rescue missions for migrants in the Andaman Sea and that humanitarian aid would be given. The announcement came as the Malaysia and Indonesia foreign ministers were in Myanmar for talks on the crisis.

On 22 May the BBC reported on what it described as a profitable connection between people traffickers and entire communities in Thailand. “The price for a cargo of 300 people, we were told by several sources including Thai police, was $20,000 or more. Then the migrants were held in the jungle until their families paid a ransom, usually $2,000 – $3,000 per person, a huge sum for people usually doing low-end jobs in Malaysia.”

On 23 May the BBC reported  that Indonesia had begun search and rescue missions after initially fending off boats. It noted that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had called on Southeast Asian nations to do more to protect migrants. “It’s important to save human lives. Whatever the reasons may be when they are out on the sea, their life is endangered,” Mr Ban said in a speech in Vietnam.

The BBC reported on 25 May that Malaysian police had indicated that 139 suspected migrant grave sites had been found in 28 people-trafficking camps along the Thai border. National police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said some of the graves, found since 11 May, may contain more than one body.

Human Rights Watch carried a report on 27 May  in which migrants recounted horrific treatment by traffickers. “Rohingya have described enduring two months at sea, packed below decks in cramped conditions with limited food and water and very poor sanitation. Boats carrying approximately 100 mostly Rohingya men and women each abandoned passengers at an undisclosed location along Thailand’s coast, leaving them to fend for themselves until they were found by the Thai authorities.”

On 28 May the BBC reported  that Malaysian authorities were investigating 12 policemen suspected of involvement in human-trafficking camps found in the remote north of the country. Authorities said 139 graves had been found on the border with Thailand.

Discussion of the crisis at an ASEAN conference that opened in Bangkok on 29 May attracted wide coverage . Myanmar’s foreign ministry chief Htin Lynn said his country would co-operate in dealing with human trafficking, but that on “this issue of illegal migration of boat people, you cannot single out my country. Finger-pointing will not serve any purpose.” Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn said “the root causes that motivated these people to leave must also be addressed.” The talks talks included representatives from 17 countries affected by “irregular migration in the Indian Ocean”.


The 25 April magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Nepal killed more than 8,500 people and injured 18,000. Throughout May, the Nepal authorities, with help from myriad international agencies, struggled to address the immediate consequences of the disaster and begin taking steps to deal with its long-term impact. The earthquake destroyed a half-million homes and left more than 3 million homeless. On 8 May Fox6News reported  government officials as saying that initial estimates put the number of missing above 400. Of this figure, more than 100 were believed to be foreigners. The BBC reported on 13 May  that work had resumed to find victims and survivors after a second earthquake: at least 65 people died and nearly 2,000 were hurt in the 7.3 magnitude quake that struck on 12 May. BetaNews reported on 15 May  that rescuers were utilizing NASA technology, a radar detector, known as Finder (Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response), which is a suitcase-sized device that identifies heartbeats. The report said the technology had helped rescue four earthquake victims who otherwise might not have been found underneath the vast quantity of rubble, mud and debris. This is the first use of Finder in a real-life disaster situation, it said. ITProPortal had earlier reported that Google and Facebook had begun helping people looking for friends and relatives after the earthquake. Google’s People Finder is a simple website that enables people to publish requests for information about loved ones, as well as giving those with information somewhere to share it. Facebook’s Nepal Earthquake Safety Check provides a similar feature.

Mediterranean Migration

The mass migration of people fleeing repression and political violence in the Middle East and Africa has resulted in thousands going missing along migration routes to Europe. Casualty numbers continued to rise in May as European governments struggled to tackle people-trafficking, extend care to migrants and account for the missing.

The BBC reported on 4 May that more than 5,800 migrants had been rescued and 10 bodies recovered off the Libyan coast on 2-3 May, according to the Italian coastguard. The survivors were picked up from wooden and rubber boats in 17 separate operations by Italian and French ships. An Italian ship landed nearly 900 people in Sicily early on 4 May. The report said at least 1,750 people had died in the first four months of 2015 while trying to cross the Mediterranean, a 20-fold increase on the same period in 2014. The busiest two days for rescue were 12-13 April, when 6,500 people were picked up, the report said. On 5 May the Daily Telegraph reported  that dozens of migrants were feared to have drowned after the large rubber dinghy they were travelling in deflated and sank. Accounts of the sinking were given by some of the 240 survivors who were rescued and brought to the port of Catania in Sicily on 4 May. At least 40 people were thought to have died. On 7 May the BBC reported that the Italian navy had apparently found a boat that had sunk three weeks earlier leaving at least 800 migrants dead in what the UN has called the deadliest ever incident in the Mediterranean. The Italian navy said it had found the boat 375m below sea level. Only 28 people survived after the boat crashed into a merchant ship – four of the survivors were children. Rescuers found only 24 bodies at the scene. Italian prosecutors say the migrants paid between $700 and $7,000 to be on board, having been forced to stay on a farm in Libya for up to a month before the journey.

On 11 May the BBC reported  the UN’s estimate that 60,000 people had already tried to cross the Mediterranean in 2015. It said migrants were being driven to make the journey by “horrific abuse” in Libya, according to Amnesty International. On 12 May the BBC reported  that, speaking at the Security-Council, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini had pleaded for UN help to dismantle criminal groups smuggling migrants into the EU. It said Ms Mogherini was seeking a legal basis for search-and-destroy operations to be carried out on empty Libyan smuggling boats. On 13 May the BBC reported that a British warship had rescued hundreds of migrants. HMS Bulwark brought more than 400 people to safety after they were found 40 miles from the Libyan coast in inflatable boats. UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the Royal Navy had rescued about 600 people so far this month. It added that the European Commission has proposed a scheme to offer 20,000 refugees the right to resettle in the EU over the next two years, as part of a €50m plan. UK Home Secretary Theresa May said offering resettlement regardless of circumstances to migrants rescued from the Mediterranean would encourage more to make “perilous journeys”, which is why, she said, the UK is not backing a resettlement quota plan. On 17 May the BBC reported  that Islamic State (IS) fighters are being smuggled into Europe by gangs in the Mediterranean, according to a Libyan government advisor. Experts have cautioned that it is very difficult to verify or assess such claims.

On 21 May Human Rights Watch called on the EU  to ensure that military action against human smuggling networks does not put the lives and rights of migrants and asylum seekers in jeopardy. Noting that the Council of the European Union had agreed on 18 May to create a naval operation, dubbed EUNAVFOR Med, to identify, capture, and destroy boats used by smugglers in the Mediterranean it warned that military action against traffickers could also expose migrants and asylum seekers to serious risks. It said saving lives and bringing people ashore must be the top priority.

The JollofNews web portal from Gambia reported on 25 May  that despite warnings from shipwreck survivors and the international community, Gambians are refusing to abandon dreams of a new life in Europe even if it means risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean aboard rickety boats. In the capital Banjul, they talk of nightmare desert road trips, of mistreatment by traffickers and of relatives drowning, and yet the only thing stopping many from making the journey themselves is a lack of cash. The article describes the experience of one group of Gambians who tried to make the journey to Europe, having paid US$1,000 each, and who were victims of an armed attack en route to Libya.

On 27 May the BBC reported  that the European Commission would announce details of plans to relocate tens of thousands of migrants who have reached southern Europe from Africa. The BBC said 40,000 asylum seekers would reportedly be spread across the EU countries through a quota system, and it noted that the UK government says it will opt out of the relocation plans, while France, Spain, Hungary, Slovakia and Estonia have all voiced concerns. The quota plan was in addition to moves announced earlier in May by the EU for a voluntary scheme to settle 20,000 migrants.

Middle East

Across the Middle East many of the power structures that have emerged after the turmoil of the Arab Spring, and as a result of political violence and full-scale conflict in several countries have introduced or intensified repressive policies that include the use of enforced disappearance as a means of silencing opposition.

On 1 May Human Rights Watch reported  that officials from the internationally recognized Libyan government stated on 29 April that two Tunisian journalists who had been missing in eastern Libya since September 2014 had been killed. The government said it had not provided any evidence due to difficulties in reaching the area where the bodies of the journalists were said to be located. The authorities also said that they had obtained information about the killings of a Libyan TV crew of five working for Al-Barqa TV, missing since August. Human Rights Watch said it had documented killings of eight journalists in Libya and attacks against dozens of others since 2012.

Human Rights Watch reported on 7 May  that Pro-Houthi forces in Yemen had fatally shot two women and held aid workers hostage in Aden, incidents which, it said, exemplify the grave threats to civilians in the southern seaport, where Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthis, and their allies are fighting forces of the Popular Resistance Committees. On 12 May Human Rights Watch reported that Houthi forces have intensified recruitment, training, and deployment of children in violation of international law. Since September 2014, when the Houthis took control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, they have increasingly used children as scouts, guards, runners, and fighters, with some children being wounded and killed; and in addition to the Houthis, Islamist and tribal militias and armed groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are deploying child soldiers, Human Rights Watch said. According to UNICEF, children with the Houthis and other armed groups comprise up to a third of all fighters in Yemen. Armed groups recruited at least 140 children between 26 March and 24 April, the UN agency said. In recent months, journalists in Yemen have reported seeing boys between 14 and 16 with rifles and handguns fighting for Houthi forces and other armed groups. One described seeing a 7-year-old boy at a Houthi checkpoint in Sanaa with a military assault rifle.

On 7 May Human Rights Watch reported  that Palestinian Authority security forces had detained at least four West Bank students over the past six months, apparently for their affiliation with Hamas or for political criticism. Two have alleged ill-treatment in detention. Amnesty International issued a report on 26 May  stating that Hamas forces in Gaza committed serious human rights abuses, including abductions, torture and summary and extrajudicial executions with impunity during the 2014 Gaza/Israel conflict.

The allAfrica news portal reported on 9 May  that in 2014 and 2015 the Tunisian armed forces had discovered 61 camps operated by insurgents. A spokesperson for the Tunisian Defense Ministry said clandestine grave sites used by the insurgents to bury their dead had also been found. He said the insurgents hide the number of casualties in their ranks in order to project an impression of strength and attract new recruits. He said the mass graves were found on Mount Chaambi in Western Tunisia and that testimony from captured insurgents suggested that these were not the only mass graves in the area.

On 11 May Amnesty International reported  that in Libya, thousands of foreign nationals, including refugees and asylum-seekers, face abductions for ransom, torture and sexual violence by traffickers, smugglers and organized criminal groups. Many are systematically subjected to discrimination and exploitation by their employers or face indefinite detention in appalling conditions on account of their immigration status.

Human Rights Watch released a report on 10 May documenting a Saudi campaign which it said has been underway since 2013 to detain and deport hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrant workers, resulting in abuses against many of them. The 36-page report, “Detained, Beaten, Deported: Saudi Abuses against Migrants during Mass Expulsions,” draws on interviews with 60 workers deported to Yemen and Somalia who experienced serious abuses during the expulsion campaign.

Amnesty International reported on 15 May  that three sisters had been reunited with their family after spending three months in secret detention in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The women were detained after posting comments on Twitter on behalf of their brother, a prisoner of conscience in the Gulf state.

On 19 May the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), issued a statement  highlighting the case of three prominent human rights defenders whom it said have been arbitrarily detained since February 2012 for promoting and protecting human rights in Syria and were last seen on 3 May 2015. FIDH and its associated organization the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, called for the immediate and unconditional release of Mazen Darwish, Hani Al-Zaitani and Hussain Ghrer, respectively President and members of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression.

National Missing Children’s Day

Events were held throughout the world in the week of 25 May to mark International Missing Children’s Day and, in the US, National Missing Children’s Day. The tenty-fifth of May was designated National Missing Children’s Day by Ronald Reagan in 1983. The Global Missing Children’s Network (GMCN), which includes Albania, Argentina, Australia, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the US, marks 25 May as International Missing Children’s Day., a web portal in the US state of Florida, reported on 25 May  on local ceremonies to mark Missing Children’s Day, noting that in 2014, Florida law enforcement agencies received 35,038 reports of missing children and the state’s Missing Persons and Offender Registration unit provided direct assistance in the recovery of 76 missing children. The unit invites the public to sign up to receive Missing Child Alerts and AMBER Alerts via email or text message.

Prensa Latina reported on 25 May  that a child is lost every five hours in South Africa, according to official police data. The Missing Persons Office reported that just under 1,700 children were reported missing in 2013 and although many were reunited with their families, around a quarter were not found. The South Africa figure compares to one child lost every 40 seconds in the US, according to Prensa Latina.

The Argus newspaper from Brighton in the UK, reported on 26 May  that celebrities including Stephen Fry and Simon Cowell had joined thousands of Twitter followers in a national 24-hour campaign to find missing youngsters. The Missing People’s charity’s Big Tweet tweeted a different appeal for a missing child every 30 minutes throughout 25 May.

On 26 May the Irish Examiner reported  that social media awareness campaigns are helping to keep memories of missing children alive, according to the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC). ISPCC Director of Services Caroline O’Sullivan highlighted the importance of poster campaigns as well as campaigns on Twitter and Facebook.

Turkey and Cyprus

The Bianet news portal from Turkey reported on 26 May  that the Human Rights Association and family members of forcibly disappeared people were organizing demonstrations within the scope of International Week of the Disappeared, which is observed in the final week of May by multiple human rights organizations around the world. Rights activists have called on Turkish society to “face the past” and enact a law to establish a truth and reconciliation commission, accede to the International Convention against Enforced Disappearance, and ban enforced disappearance and recognize it as a crime against humanity, the article said. They have also called on the authorities to open mass graves with the cooperation of human rights and other related non-governmental organizations, and to create DNA banks. In addition, public prosecutors should identify offenders among security and military police units, abolish internal security legislation and end impunity for public officials. On 28 May Bianet reported that the Saturday Mothers/People group of relatives of the missing had marked the 20th anniversary of the launch of their protest in Istanbul’s Galatasaray Square on 27 May 1995. Participants staged a sit-in around candles and photos of the missing and called on political parties and the general public to “help us to struggle with enforced disappearances and to find the offenders.” Other banners read, “Don’t forget. Only justice heals.”

 The Cyprus Mail reported on 28 May that Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders had issued a joint appeal for information on the fate of missing persons from both communities. “We call on everyone who might possess information on possible burial sites of missing persons, to share this information with the Committee on Missing Persons without hesitation. We guarantee that their confidentiality will be fully respected. We believe that this is a humanitarian duty that should be fulfilled,” the statement read. The missing persons issue is “one of the most painful chapters in the history of Cyprus”, it added. “Healing this open wound at the earliest is important in terms of easing the pain of the missing persons’ relatives.” President Nicos Anastasiades said it was the first time such a statement had been made. The two sides have reported 2,001 missing persons – 1,508 Greek Cypriots and 493 Turkish Cypriots. According to its website, the CMP has so far exhumed the remains of 962 people and has identified 579 – 439 Greek Cypriots and 140 Turkish Cypriots, the report said.