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COVID-19 Compounds Families’ Painful Search for Missing and Disappeared Migrants

By Marta Sánchez Dionis, Kate Dearden, Gabriella Sanchez
Due to COVID-19, more people are dying away from home and away from their families.

Often, bereaved families have no opportunity to mourn their loved ones. However, their experiences have been paid meagre attention. With the support of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (IOM GMDAC) is carrying out qualitative research with families of missing migrants to better understand how people cope with the uncertainty and tragedy of loss and death, and what governments and other actors can do to better support them. The geographic focus of the research is the Western and Central Mediterranean routes to Europe and the findings will be published in the last quarter of 2020.

COVID-19 and the mobility restrictions and border controls passed to prevent its spread affect everyone. Despite the constraints, migrants continue to embark on clandestine journeys, fleeing violence and poverty and seeking to improve their lives. COVID-19 responses have increased the precarity of these journeys, pushing people into more perilous and deadly situations where humanitarian support and rescue may be unavailable.[1] Families and communities of origin are also affected, including how they search for the missing and grieve for those who have died away from home.

Over the past few months, devastating examples of the harrowing journeys people embark on due to the reduction in safe and legal pathways to migration have kept making headlines: 64 migrants dying in the back of a lorry in Mozambique on 24 March[2] and a boat carrying at least 43 people shipwrecked on its way to the Canary Islands on 3 April.[3] Rohingya refugees rescued on 15 April by the Bangladeshi Coast Guard after a two month ordeal aboard a wooden fishing trawler reported that up to three people were dying each day due to dehydration, starvation and violence during which no country would allow them to disembark. At least 12 men died in the Central Mediterranean over the Easter weekend when their boat was returned to Libya allegedly with the assistance of the Maltese authorities.[4]

The restrictions imposed in many countries and the focus on the COVID-19 response have also limited the ability to collect and report information on migrant deaths and disappearances. The number of reported deaths on migration journeys since the beginning of the pandemic is a minimum estimate and we know that deaths and disappearances continue in remote and dangerous areas and the probability of victims or survivors being identified and accounted for is slim.

Each person unidentified or whose remains are not recovered is leaving behind loved ones without answers.

When families stop hearing from their loved ones, they begin a painful search for information that can take years or a lifetime.

The circumstances have not stopped families’ demands for information on their missing mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children. Yet fieldwork in the context of this project shows that the response measures and the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 will have a detrimental impact on their mental, social and physical well-being, and on their ability to search for their missing loved ones. Restrictions on mobility are making it harder for people to access or receive information concerning the whereabouts of their friends and relatives.

Even under normal circumstances families searching for information face many obstacles. Preliminary findings from our research in the UK show that the participants’ undocumented status coupled with difficult socioeconomic conditions are key challenges in trying to find missing loved ones. Many family members who participated in the research in the UK hold challenging and underpaid jobs which have been adversely impacted by lockdown measures. These precarious financial circumstances and difficulties finding secure accommodation further undermine their ability to trace missing relatives.

Similarly in Spain, strict lockdown measures have severely affected the ability of migrants working in greenhouses and agricultural fields to search for loved ones. Fieldwork conducted by the research team in Almería, Southern Spain, showed that COVID-19 restrictions have led to a reduction and suspension of harvesting activities and the loss of income. Many migrants are currently relying on the assistance of local NGOs to access basic supplies and food. While official restrictions in Spain have by now been lifted, many migrant families are still confined to their homes – in the case of Almería, often makeshift settlements on the periphery.[5]

We know from past research in the Mediterranean migration context that it is rare for families to be present during the burials of relatives who died in the course of their migration journeys.[6] The already uncommon process of repatriating the remains of migrants during this period is further complicated by sanitary restrictions concerning the propagation of the virus and vastly restricted mobility.

For example, the bodies of 26 Bangladeshi and four Sub-Saharan African migrants massacred in the Libyan city of Mezdah in late May were buried in Libya, despite the desperate requests from families who were hoping for the remains to be returned to their homelands.[7] As other Missing Migrant Project reports and publications have shown, these restrictions are extremely distressing for families, and exacerbate their grief.
Another example involved the relatives of migrants who went missing in the 3 April shipwreck between Morocco and the Canary Islands, who told Le Monde that the impossibility to respect burial and mourning traditions have added even more pain to the loss of their loved ones.[8] “My mother mourned him as if his body was next to us, she is convinced of his death,” shared the brother of Alseny Kouta, a young Guinean who went missing during the shipwreck.

“I can’t say if he’s dead or not, if he was buried somewhere or not. And we have no one to turn to.”

Despite the lack of certainty about his fate, Alseny’s family wanted to organize a ceremony “so that his soul can rest in peace if he is dead or that God can take care of him if he is still alive”, his brother said.

However, the prohibition on gatherings of more than twenty people due to the COVID-19 restrictions did not allow for such a ceremony to take place. In the end, the ceremony was held in private.  “It’s odd to say goodbye to someone like that.” Ibrahima Sylla, Alseny’s brother, told Le Monde.

What has been made painfully clear these last months are the collective and intimate experiences with loss that the pandemic has brought about as it moves across the globe. Faced with an uncertain future, the disruption of everyday life and the loss of loved ones in the time of physical distancing, people around the world are experiencing reactions frequently associated with ambiguous loss and grief.

For families of missing migrants, these feelings of profound grief and loss are not new, but they have been amplified by the increased isolation and precarity brought by the pandemic

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READ  Libya: New evidence shows refugees and migrants trapped in horrific cycle of abuses
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UNHCR and IOM shocked and dismayed by deaths near Belarus-Poland border

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and are deeply saddened by the deaths of four individuals near the border between Poland and Belarus. The organizations express their condolences to the families of the deceased and are calling for an immediate investigation into this tragedy. The nationalities of the all the victims have yet to be confirmed but two Iraqi nationals reportedly died of hypothermia.

In recent months, groups of asylum-seekers and migrants have been transiting through Belarus, to seek asylum in neighbouring EU Member States – Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.

The two agencies have been following with growing concern, reports of pushbacks of people at these borders. Groups of people have become stranded for weeks, unable to access any form of assistance, asylum or basic services. Many were left in dire situations, exposed to the elements, suffering from hypothermia. Some were rescued from swamps.

READ  UN agencies welcome first 24 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children from Greece

Recognizing the significant challenges posed by irregular movements, the agencies have called for the situation to be managed in accordance with international legal obligations, and for States to work collaboratively to resolve the situation, prioritising human rights.

UNHCR and IOM call for immediate access to those affected, in order to provide lifesaving medical help, food, water and shelter, especially in light of the approaching winter.

While States have the sovereign right to manage their borders, this is not incompatible with the respect for human rights including the right to seek asylum. Pushbacks endanger lives and are illegal under international law.

UNHCR and IOM have been engaging with relevant authorities to explore various options for the people who continue to be stranded at borders; from access to asylum, family reunification procedures, and voluntary return for those found not to be in need of international protection.

IOM and UNHCR reiterate that asylum-seekers and migrants should never be used by States to achieve political ends. The fundamental responsibility to protect vulnerable people should be shared among States in a spirit of solidarity. Political disagreement on responsibilities must never result in the loss of life, forfeiting States international obligations and commitments.

READ  IOM, UNHCR seek help for 400 rescued migrants, refugees in C'Mediterranean Sea

 

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UNHCR calls on Libya to urgently develop plan for asylum seekers and refugees, welcomes authorization to restart evacuation

Libya. UNHCR provides assistance to asylum-seekers caught in crackdown

A refugee feeds her baby while waiting to receive assistance at an emergency distribution by UNHCR and partners in Tripoli, Libya.  © UNHCR/Mohamed Alalem

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, today urged the Libyan government to immediately address the dire situation of asylumseekers and refugees in a humane and rights-based manner. Raids and arbitrary arrests by the authorities this month targeted areas largely  populated by refugees and asylumseekers that resulted in several deaths, thousands detained, and many homeless and destitute.

“Since the start of the security raids and arrests by the Libyan authorities in October, we have witnessed a sharp deterioration in the situation facing vulnerable asylumseekers and refugees in Tripoli,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s Special Envoy for the Western and Central Mediterranean Situation. “The Libyan authorities must come up with a proper plan that respects their rights and identifies durable solutions.”

Some 3,000 people are currently sheltering outside the Community Day Centre (CDC) in Tripoli, where UNHCR and its partners have been providing medical assistance and other services. Their situation is very precarious. Many were affected by the raids, demolition of their homes, and have escaped from detention in terrible conditions. Others have joined the group hoping to be evacuated.

READ  Boris Johnson rows back on proposal to introduce amnesty for undocumented migrants

“Many have been left homeless and lost all their belongings as a result of the security operation and are now sleeping in the cold and in a very unsafe environment. This is utterly unacceptable,” said Cochetel.

UNHCR and partners had to suspend operations at the Community Day Centre for security and safety reasons, but remain engaged in an active dialogue with representatives of the protesters outside the CDC to explain the limited assistance it can offer, including cash and food assistance.

Together with other UN agencies, UNHCR stands ready to support an urgent plan of action that could help alleviate the terrible suffering of asylumseekers and refugees in Libya. 

UNHCR continues to call on the authorities to respect the human rights and dignity of asylumseekers and refugees, stop their arbitrary arrest and release them from detention. 

The UN Refugee Agency has welcomed authorization to restart humanitarian evacuation flights, but warns that it is not enough. 

“This is a positive development for some of the most vulnerable refugees, who have been waiting anxiously for many months to depart. Our teams are already working to ensure humanitarian flights can restart as soon as possible,” said Cochetel “But we also need to be realistic: resettlement or evacuation flights will only benefit a limited number of people.”    

More than 1,000 vulnerable refugees and asylumseekers are currently prioritised for humanitarian flights and awaiting their resumption. UNHCR continues to urge the international community to offer more legal pathways to safety outside Libya.

READ  IOM, UNHCR seek help for 400 rescued migrants, refugees in C'Mediterranean Sea

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Free movement of people a top priority, say West African nations

Aligned migration policies must be effectively applied by border officials to ease free movement while combatting trafficking in persons, says the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Photo: Fredrick Ejiga/IOM

Abuja – Free movement of people and goods, and fighting human trafficking should be top policy priorities, members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) agreed at talks convened with the support of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN Network for Migration and the African Union.

Three days of consultations in Abuja this week offered the first chance for ECOWAS members to collectively assess progress in implementing the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) objectives and to decide key recommendations to be put to next year’s International Migration Review Forum.

Integrated migration governance should be a key goal and Ambrose Dery, Minister of Interior for Ghana, the Chair of ECOWAS Authority of Heads of States and Governments, said it was essential African nations addressed trafficking in persons and its devastating consequences on migrants.

READ  Nigeria Immigration intercepts irregular Cameroonian migrants

“Vile stories on international media concerning migrant slavery, as well as mistreatment of young African domestic helps in some Gulf States, call for a reflection on appropriate actions to be taken with a view to finding a lasting solution to this persistent problem that leads to the loss of young Africans, without whom the continent cannot build a prosperous and peaceful future,” Dery said. “In Ghana, the contribution of migrants has played a great role in shaping our national development.”

Governments must address the root causes of trafficking and ensure the free movement of people in a safe, orderly and dignified manner. ECOWAS representatives emphasized the need to join forces and align approaches to prevent and counter smuggling of migrants and trafficking in persons to promote rights-based management of migration.

The meeting, which ended Thursday, also heard that policies must be effectively applied by border officials to ease free movement while combatting trafficking in persons.

Aissata Kane, IOM’s Senior Regional Adviser for Sub Saharan Africa, said the Global Compact for Migration was a landmark, multilateral document. “It aims to catalyze and boost combined support and assistance for addressing legal and humanitarian challenges of migration and foster its positive social, cultural and economic dividends within and outside the ECOWAS region.”

READ  Dominican Republic, IOM clear hurdles for 100,000 Venezuelan migrants

IOM has been working with all stakeholders at intergovernmental and national levels, as well as within the UN Network for Migration, to promote safe, orderly and dignified free movement of people and economic exchange among ECOWAS Member States.

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