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The tragedy of dead and missing migrants in the Mediterranean

An inflatable boat filled with refugees and other migrants approaches the north coast of the Greek island of Lesbos. Turkey is visible in the background Getty Images

Press release issued: 31 August 2016

In 2015 and the first half of 2016, more than 6,600 refugees and migrants drowned or went missing in the Mediterranean after their boats capsized while trying to reach Europe.

Now, researchers from the University of Bristol have played a key part in a new report about the fate of the missing migrants, the identification and management of their bodies, tracing of families and obligations of States.

Ann Singleton, from the School for Policy Studies and Adrián Carrasco Heiermann, who gained his MSc in Public Policy from Bristol in 2015, worked as part of an international team led by the University of York and City University London, with the International Organization for Migration’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (IOM GMDAC), to deliver a report showing that many of the bodies are never identified, that the families at home face never finding out what has happened to their loved ones, and which suggests ways in which the system could be improved.

Frank Laczko, director of the IOM GMDAC, said: “Our data suggest that worldwide migration became less safe in 2016 as more migrants died. Nearly 80 per cent of deaths were recorded in the Mediterranean region where numbers of deaths were up by more than a third compared to last year. In 2016, one in 85 migrants died attempting the Mediterranean crossing in comparison to one in 276 in 2015.”

“Behind the visible catastrophe of shipwrecks and deaths in the Mediterranean is an invisible catastrophe, in which bodies are found and not enough is done to identify them and inform their families,” said Dr Simon Robins, lead author of the report and a senior research fellow at the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York.

“This is devastating for their families back home. They likened it to a form of torture where they are caught between hope and despair, not knowing whether they would ever see their loved one again, not knowing if they should give up hope and focus on the rest of their lives.

“More than anything these people want to know if their loved one is alive or dead. If they are dead, they want to bring their relative home and have them buried visibly in their community.”

The report details the findings of the ESRC funded Mediterranean Missing Project, which was launched as part of a wider £1 million ESRC research programme, in response to the on-going humanitarian crisis

Ann Singleton said: “Italy and Greece have largely been left to deal with this crisis on their own. This report – which saw researchers spending a year on Lesbos and Sicily, looking at how the authorities dealt with the bodies of migrants, as well as interviewing the families of dead and missing migrants - found the number of both arriving migrants and of deaths had overwhelmed local authorities, which have limited resources.

“The main problem is a lack of coherent and coordinated policy concerning deceased migrants in both Greece and Italy. The policy vacuum at the national level means local authorities are overwhelmed, and are not provided with the capacity or financial resources to deal with the nature and volume of the humanitarian crisis. There are a large number of agencies with overlapping mandates that fail to coordinate with one another, leading to no one being sure who is responsible for what. The different state and local agencies involved have little support from national governments or from the EU.”

Adrián Carrasco Heierman led on the report on the Italian situation. He said: “In Italy, a Special Commissioner for Missing Persons has led investigation in cases of three large scale shipwrecks and – through agreements with relevant actors including forensic experts and police – been supported with the resources to do an excellent job in collecting data from bodies. The challenge now in Italy is to extend such efforts to all migrant deaths. In both Greece and Italy, efforts to contact the families of the missing have been largely frustrated, with the result that few data have been collected from families of missing migrants, preventing identifications. The result of this is bodies being buried unidentified, with little prospect of their being identified in the future.”

Another problem is the lack of an international mechanism to exchange data on deceased migrants and from missing persons, such that these data can be matched to make identifications.

What this means is that there is no point of contact in Europe for family members looking for a loved one who might have died crossing the Mediterranean. An additional barrier is that families searching for missing people are often not even able to travel to European states to identify their relative. Trying to get a visa to enter the EU is difficult, and there is no such thing as a humanitarian visa. 

So what can be done to improve the situation? The authors suggest a number of ways that states can improve their procedures for identifying those who have drowned at sea

“We believe that Italy and Greece have a legal duty to investigate, as well as a moral obligation to the families of those who have died,  which isn’t being met”, says Dr Robins.

“More effort also needs to be made to reach out to missing migrants’ families. Involving families would help investigators make identifications, as they could collect data from the family that could be matched to that taken from the bodies of the deceased. More than this, families could be put at the centre of efforts to address the issue. Families of missing migrants are living every day with uncertainty: European states have a moral and legal obligation to make efforts to end their suffering.”

Ann Singleton said: “This report is a significant piece of work, in which we have contributed to the production of policy relevant evidence to inform decision making in a most pressing and ongoing humanitarian and policy crisis. Our contribution has been possible because of the collaboration between the University of Bristol and IOM GMDAC. The report is a significant contribution to finding a solution to the tragic consequences of the humanitarian, migration and policy crisis. It is to be hoped that policy makers across Europe will act on the findings. If so, the report should lead to new policies that will make a positive, practical difference.”

Further information

The research team can be contacted directly through Dr Simon Robins at:

Reports are available to download from the project website.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.

Ann Singleton is Senior Research Fellow in the School of Policy Studies and Senior Advisor to the IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (IOM GMDAC). With Dr. Frank Laczko, Director of IOM GMDAC, she leads activities pioneered through a collaborative agreement between the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) and IOM GMDAC. The University of Bristol is particularly well-suited to lead the initiative as it has substantial expertise in poverty, health, inequality and migration, as well as in data science and ‘big data’. Singleton currently leads a team of 20 leading migration scholars in the WUN Migration, Development and Global Transformations (MDGT) initiative, which was jointly conceived by UoB, WUN, and IOM GMDAC. Further details are available on the WUN website

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