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Accounting for the Missing: an Investment in Peace

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By Her Majesty Queen Noor,

The social, political and economic challenges of mass migration have paralyzed policymaking – and the truth is that there is no easy fix. Migration is just one part of a seismic shift that ranges from climate change to the realignment of global power in the decades since the end of the Cold War. In the Mediterranean, the conflict in Syria has been a key driver of refugee flows – though not the only one.

The absence of a quick fix, however, does not mean there are no sensible and effective responses to parts of the overall challenge. One of the most devastating consequences of irregular migration has been the rise in people trafficking and human slavery along the southern shores of the Mediterranean

And this is aside from the phenomenon of human remains washed up on the beaches of Europe.

This is an enormous challenge, but within the parameters of that challenge the issue of migrants who go missing can be tackled in a legal, ethical and effective way. Governments must understand this and act accordingly.

So, how big is the problem and what can we do about it?

Around the world, almost 31,000 migrants are reported to have died or to have gone missing since the beginning of 2014, of whom nearly 18,500 were lost on Mediterranean routes. Around 2,300 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2018, and more than 490 have died in the first five months of 2019. In 2018, almost 20,000 unaccompanied children applied for international protection in the European Union. Most of these children arrived by sea to Spain, where 11 percent of all arrivals were children traveling on their own. European governments have reported that child migrants have disappeared in significant numbers after their arrival in Europe. The authorities believe some of these children may be victims of trafficking, slavery, sexual exploitation and other criminal activities

On 13 June, at its Headquarters in The Hague, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) convened the 2nd meeting of the Joint Process to Account for Persons Missing as a Result of Migration in the Mediterranean. The Joint Process was launched in June last year at a conference in Rome, where the participating countries – Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Malta – undertook to coordinate their response to accounting for missing migrants.

Last week’s meeting reviewed findings of a survey undertaken by ICMP to assess the scope and extent of investigatory capacities in the four countries. Participants discussed recommendations from the survey, and also the possibility of expanding membership of the Joint Process group.

The following day, ICMP hosted an Intergovernmental Roundtable to define the shared challenge faced by countries in Europe and the Middle East in regard to the issue of refugees, migrants and displaced populations who have missing relatives from either the country of origin (such as Syria) or along migratory routes. Representatives of countries and international organizations reviewed legal and institutional frameworks, assessed the impact of addressing the missing persons issue on refugee return, identified solutions, including the creation of centralized data systems capabilities, and explored the key ways in which addressing this issue constitutes an investment in peace and stability. A common theme throughout this discussion was the obligations of states to account for refugees, migrants and displaced persons who go missing, and the resources that are available to help them do this.

These meetings are part of an extended series of consultations undertaken by ICMP to support a global effort to account for missing migrants. Currently, the focus is on the Mediterranean and, specifically, on the large numbers who have gone missing as a result of the conflict in Syria. Discussions with Syrian families, civil society organizations (CSOs) and representatives of other relevant organizations are designed to promote a common understanding of the needs of survivors, and a unified advocacy strategy among CSOs and families, and to prepare the way for a strategic and coherent missing persons process that will be part of a peace settlement.

These and other meetings organized by ICMP do not seek to resolve the overall challenge of mass migration but rather to make a practical and measurable impact on one part of that challenge – the issue of migrants who go missing. We believe that through a targeted approach based on the rule of law, we can make significant progress, and this in turn can contribute to a long-term resolution of the mass-migration challenge that has until now defied the best efforts of policymakers around the world.

Her Majesty Queen Noor has been a Commissioner of the International Commission on Missing Persons since June 2001. ICMP is a treaty-based intergovernmental organization with Headquarters in The Hague, the Netherlands. Its mandate is to secure the cooperation of governments and others in locating and identifying missing persons from conflict, human rights abuses, disasters, organized crime, irregular migration and other causes and to assist them in doing so. It is the only international organization tasked exclusively to work on the issue of missing persons.