The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has released preliminary figures for all migrant or refugee deaths worldwide in 2016 – reporting that 7,495 men, women and children died or went missing across five continents. This compares to 5,267 in 2014 and 5,740 last year, and brings the total for three years to 18,501. Migrant routes were more deadly in 2016, particularly the Central Mediterranean route between North Africa and Europe, where nearly 4,600 migrants perished.
The issues surrounding missing migrants and refugees are unusually complex, involving a wide variety of legal, geographical and political factors. Migrants and refugees may be fleeing conflicts which are the subject of competing diplomatic interests; sea crossings bring international maritime law into play; human smuggling and human trafficking – two distinct but interconnected activities – demand different legal and judicial responses; and since they typically pass through several countries and jurisdictions before they reach their final destination, legal considerations in one country may impinge on different issues in a neighboring country when, for example, an undocumented individual goes missing.
On 9 December 2016, with a view to building support for a plan to help find missing migrants and refugees, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) and IOM convened an Inter-Agency Roundtable at ICMP Headquarters in The Hague, which was hosted by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The day-long roundtable brought together representatives of key agencies and governments to examine options for processing and managing data relevant to finding missing refugees and migrants.
The meeting addressed existing provisions as well as proposals for improving data collection, sharing, and analysis, and related mechanisms to help resolve the fate of the missing. During the meeting, it was stressed that addressing the issue of refugees and migrants who go missing requires the cooperation of international and national organizations as well as states. While some organizations collect data on migrant fatalities, there is less focus on information that can be used to help families find their missing loved ones. Due in part to the large number of migrant deaths, current identification processes lack standardization and coordination.
ICMP briefed participants on its Identification Data Management System (iDMS), which makes it possible to collect, store, and share personal data on missing persons efficiently and securely. This is central to the process of locating and identifying the large numbers of persons who are missing as a result of migration. The iDMS makes it possible to bring together all of the disparate elements in investigations that span different countries and continents, different time periods and different social, cultural and legal environments. It is accessible from anywhere in the world via the Online Inquiry Center (OIC). Currently, the OIC can be accessed in English, Arabic, Spanish, Albanian, and Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian. ICMP plans to add more languages in due course.
“We believe that the iDMS and the OIC can play a key role in a coordinated inter-agency response to the migration crisis,” ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger told participants at the Hague roundtable. “Data systems can help national and international agencies and families of the missing in countries neighboring conflict areas such as Iraq and Syria, as well as helping European authorities to identify the remains of drowned migrants, and migrants who go missing after their arrival in Europe.”
In addition to ICMP and IOM, roundtable presentations were given by representatives of INTERPOL, Europol, the International Criminal Court, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the European Union’s Judicial Cooperation Unit (EUROJUST), and the European Commission. H.E. Ambassador van der Werff, representing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, delivered a keynote address.
In March 2013, ICMP and IOM concluded a cooperation agreement focusing on joint efforts to address the issue of missing persons from migration, displacement, human trafficking, and other causes.