Active Stocks
Mon Dec 04 2023 15:47:26
  1. Power Grid Corporation Of India share price
  2. 212.9 1.21%
  1. Reliance Industries share price
  2. 2,421 1.15%
  1. State Bank Of India share price
  2. 594.65 3.99%
  1. HDFC Bank share price
  2. 1,609.05 3.44%
  1. Tata Steel share price
  2. 130.95 0.77%
Business News/ Specials / How many irregular migrants go missing?
Back Back

Thousands disappear every year, but their bodies may never be found

Migrants on the Geo Barents rescue ship, operated by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), as it makes its way to Italy after rescuing 61 migrants on a wooden boat off the coast of Libya on September 29 (Photo: Reuters)Premium
Migrants on the Geo Barents rescue ship, operated by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), as it makes its way to Italy after rescuing 61 migrants on a wooden boat off the coast of Libya on September 29 (Photo: Reuters)

On July 9th Walking Borders, an aid group, reported that 300 migrants travelling on a flotilla of boats from Senegal towards the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago, had disappeared. That number was a well-informed guess. Unless the migrants are rescued or their bodies found, they will be classified as “missing". Events like this are common, both at sea and on land. On June 14th an overladen trawler capsized off the coast of Greece, with an estimated 500 people on board; only 104 were rescued. How many missing migrants are there?

The UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has recorded the deaths and disappearances of around 57,000 irregular migrants across the world since 2014. (The bodies of around 33,000 have been found.) The true figure, it believes, is higher. Because there is no systematic record of the number of migrants who attempt to cross borders unlawfully, nor of deaths, it is hard to know how many people are lost, or what might have happened to them.

Perhaps the largest group of missing migrants have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean and other seas. Others have died on land from dehydration, starvation, vehicle accidents or snake bites; their bodies are more likely to be found than those lost at sea, but the death may not be officially recorded. Other land-based migrants are kidnapped, or simply lose touch with their families.

When incidents like these are reported, the IOM, and organisations like it, try to find out how many migrants were involved. First they collect information from state bodies, such as coastguards and police forces, or from local media. To determine the migrants’ whereabouts they may turn to other sources: social media, religious leaders, family members or smugglers in the presumed country of origin.

If bodies are discovered, their number is subtracted from the total number of people reported to have been involved in an attempted crossing. The remaining unaccounted-for are considered missing, and, in most cases, presumed dead. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), an NGO, reckons that between 2014 and 2019 only 13% of the bodies of those who drowned crossing the Mediterranean to Europe were recovered. “Invisible shipwrecks"—vessels that vanish without trace—are common. Even when bodies are found, they are hard to identify. DNA samples may not help because relatives, who are usually in a different country from that in which officials work, are difficult to find.

Technology can help. Online forums have helped reunify families with missing relatives who had wrongly been presumed dead. The ICRC’s “Trace the Face" project publishes pictures of people looking for family members. Social-media groups—particularly active in north Africa—have also helped relatives find each other. Some scientists are exploring the use of artificial intelligence to compile and compare a large set of “secondary" identifiers, including tattoos, earrings, scars and craniofacial reconstructions. But projects like this require migrant organisations and governments to produce and share standardised information—and money. Governments tend to have other priorities.

There is no standardised approach to gathering data on missing migrants, making it hard for countries to join the dots. In theory governments recognise this concern: in 2018 152 of them signed the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, the first international agreement on a common approach. They agreed to co-ordinate their collection of information, as well as their efforts to identify missing or dead migrants. But the agreement was not binding, and improvements have been slow. This year the IOM has already recorded the deaths or disappearances of 2,878 people. In most cases, their families will never know what happened to them.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on

Milestone Alert!
Livemint tops charts as the fastest growing news website in the world 🌏 Click here to know more.

Catch all the Elections News, Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
More Less
Updated: 29 Sep 2023, 03:47 PM IST
Next Story footLogo
Recommended For You
Switch to the Mint app for fast and personalized news - Get App