Analysis of best practices on the identification of missing migrants: implications for the Central Mediterranean

Central Mediterranean Route Thematic Report Series, Issue n°2
Simon Robins
Publication Year
Africa / Europe and Central Asia
Mediterranean ; ; Africa
Thematic Area
Families / Forensics / Law & Policies / The Search Process
Family Needs / Identification / Management of the Dead / Migration / Rescue at sea
Open access

Over the last decade crossing the Mediterranean has become one of the deadliest journeys in the world for migrants, with nearly 18,500 migrants having died crossing the Mediterranean since 2014. In 2017 and 2018, more than 4,100 people have died on the Central Mediterranean route (CMR), constituting 77 per cent of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, without considering the many bodies that are never found. As such, the CMR is at the heart of the epidemic of death and disappearance in the Mediterranean. The vast majority of bodies found are not identified, with net identification rates of migrant bodies around 22 per cent between 1990 and 2013 (Deaths at the Borders Database (DatBD), 2015). For every migrant body retrieved from the sea or found on the shore and not identified, there is a family living with ambiguity, not knowing if their missing loved one is dead or alive. Narratives around missing migrants focus not on individuals who are missing, but on bodies that are found, characterizing the challenge they present as a technical one of labelling these anonymous bodies, rather than of addressing the range of needs of the families who are missing the people those bodies represent. The primary need of families is to know if their loved one is dead or alive and, in any case, to know their whereabouts. Identifying the dead, whilst constituting the worst answer for a family searching for a missing person, offers closure: an end to ambiguity and a chance to honour their relative. This analysis focuses on the challenges faced in identifying dead migrants on the CMR and informing the families of the deceased. Migrant deaths at international borders and on migratory routes have become distressingly commonplace in a world where so many are on the move; as a result, there is now a body of practice in identifying migrant bodies. This analysis reviews existing practice to identify those who die crossing borders globally with a view to contributing to a more effective identification process in States on the CMR. This is done in light of Objective 8 of the Global Compact for Migration, which calls on States to “Save lives and establish coordinated international efforts on missing migrants” (United Nations (UN), 2018) (see Annex I). Here we seek to use the results of the analysis to make a set of recommendations to increase the effectiveness of work on identification, the goal of which is understood as addressing the needs of families of missing migrants to know the fate of loved ones. The analysis focuses on bodies found on Italian territory, as the principal destination of the CMR and the State managing the largest number of bodies.