TUNIS – As summer arrives and increasing numbers of migrants risk everything to cross the Mediterranean, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is calling for closer cooperation between countries and humanitarian organizations along the most dangerous migration routes, to find and identify missing migrants.
This call comes as North African and North-West African countries conclude a meeting in Tunis on developing a common approach to the issue of people who go missing along migration routes. Several African countries and organizations have recognized the need for an effective response to this ongoing tragedy.
The migration routes through West Africa and the countries on Africa’s Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts are among the most dangerous in the world. Migrants disappear in the desert, drown in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and go missing in conflict zones. Many lose contact with their families when they are detained or otherwise prevented from continuing their journeys, and have no means of contacting the outside world.
“There’s a desperate need for compassion and a common approach if we’re to help migrants in distress and alleviate the suffering of the families of migrants who go missing,” explained Mona Sadek, the ICRC’s deputy director for Africa. “This can only be achieved with the necessary political will, along with cooperation and coordination across administrative boundaries, so that information is exchanged between all concerned,” she added.
The issue of missing migrants is a major humanitarian challenge for the region. Thousands of families face the pain of not knowing what has happened to their loved ones. According to the International Organization for Migration, over 11,000 migrants are recorded as having died in the Sahel/Sahara region since 2014. The IOM points out that the actual number of deaths is probably many times higher.
To make matters worse, the families of missing migrants often face numerous administrative, legal and economic problems, such as not being able to claim benefits, sell or manage property or inheritances, remarry or exercise their parental rights.
Sadek points out: “While we can’t assume that all missing migrants are dead, many do die along the migration routes and are never identified. Some of their bodies are never found, while others are buried in unmarked graves in a transit or destination country.”
The ICRC and its partners in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement work together to preserve and restore family links, find and identify people reported missing, preserve the dignity of the dead and help families made vulnerable by the disappearance of a family member. Currently, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Family Links Network has 64,000 people registered as missing in Africa.
Testimonies in an ICRC report highlight the despair of families of migrants who have gone missing in Africa. In an interview in Libya, a relative of a missing migrant told us “I would swim to the end of the sea, if there I can find the truth”.
The ICRC reminds states of their obligation to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants in distress, regardless of their legal status, in order to prevent death and injury along migration routes – on land and on sea.
The meeting in Tunis was organized by the ICRC and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and brought together senior technical representatives from Algeria, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Gambia, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia, plus organizations such as the African Union, the African Migration Observatory, the African Centre for Study and Research on Migration, the Arab League, the IOM, UNHCR and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.