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

The Migration Normalization Plan will allow Venezuelans living irregularly in the Dominican Republic to work, move without risk of deportation, open bank accounts and join the country’s social security system.  Photo: IOM / Francesco Spotorno

 

 

Santo Domingo – The first group of almost 100,000 Venezuelan migrants without legal status in the Dominican Republic have received visas allowing them to work, open bank accounts and join the social security system under the country’s Migration Normalization Plan.

Created by the Dominican government and launched with the support of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the plan aims to regularize the Venezuelan population in three stages: application for extension of stay, visa, and residency. Since April, when the first phase began, 43,000  Venezuelans have registered to extend their stay and, on 1 July, the first group of 21 Venezuelans received their work visa.

“Now that I have my visa, I feel that for others like me a lot of opportunities are opening. We will be able to establish more safely and formally to offer a better future to our children,” says Gabriela Rivero, who arrived in the country with her husband and daughter in 2018.  “Once we settled, we did not imagine how difficult it would be to get a job because the lack of documentation closed all doors.”

READ  IOM provides 40,000 surgical gloves, 4,800 surgical masks other equipment to support Coronavirus response in China

Since 2019 Gabriela has led a support organization for Venezuelan migrants in Santiago de los Caballeros called FEV (Fundación Emigrantes de Venezuela), which offers free orientation and helps hundreds of migrants daily to complete their normalization plan applications.

With IOM support, eight Venezuelan migrant organizations have created orientation hubs to assist the Venezuelan population who are applying to the plan. Of the 43,000  registered through the General Directorate of Migration (DGM) web page, around 9,000 have visited the hubs for help on the procedure. The promoters and coordinators of each hub – mostly Venezuelan migrants – have learned the process with the support and guidance of the DGM team and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MIREX). Besides being trained for orientation, they became the pilot group of the plan to receive their extensions and visas.

“The idea of this process is that we are the ones at the front of the hubs, a migrant helping a migrant, a Venezuelan helping a Venezuelan,” says Iván Carrera, a lawyer from Caracas and legal adviser of FUNCOVERD (Fundación Colonia de Venezolanos en RD). Carrera works as a promoter at the orientation hub in El Sambil Santo Domingo, one of the locations with the most people requesting support for their application.

READ  30 migrants killed in Libya

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IOM launches open South America portal

International Organisation of Migration (

Buenos Aires – IOM, the International Organization for Migration, this week launched the Open South America Portal, a web platform providing migrants and stakeholders in the region with access to reliable and timely information on human mobility restrictions and health and safety measures adopted by governments in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Open South America, available in SpanishEnglish and Portuguese, shares official information by country on the latest measures, including border restrictions, quarantine requirements and COVID-19 tests for migrants and travellers.

The portal also provides updated information on authorized entry points and key places for travellers and migrants, such as consulates, migrant care and health centres, airports, border crossings points and ports. This information can be explored through an interactive map.

The platform, funded by the IOM Development Fund, is also accessible to vulnerable migrants who may be stranded or are at risk of receiving misinformation on migration.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, South America has been one of the most impacted regions worldwide. According to the World Health Organization figures, as of 8 July 2021 there were 33,475,765 COVID-19 cumulative cases in the region, which represents 89 per cent of the total cases in Latin America, and 18 per cent of all infections recorded globally.

READ  Edo Taskforce assures continued support for returnee migrants

Countries such as Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador all experienced severe outbreaks. For example, Brazil currently reports the third highest number of cumulative cases (18,855,015) and second highest death toll (526,892) globally.

“Open South America will facilitate orderly, regular and responsible migration in South America amid the uncertain times of COVID-19 and after the pandemic,” said Minister Ana Laura Cachaza, General Director of Consular Affairs of the Government of Argentina.

“Migrants’ access to up-to-date information through innovative online tools is essential considering the changing migration dynamic in the region due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Marcelo Pisani, IOM Regional Director for South America.

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29,000 Nigerians, Ghanaians, Somalians, other Africans migrated through the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in 2021 —IOM

The International Organisation for Migration has said that 29,000 individuals including Nigerians, Ghanaians, Somalians and other Africans have emigrated to Europe through the Mediterranean Sea this year.

About 13,000 were arrested by the coast guards and returned home while 761 migrants were said to have perished in the sea.

Disclosing this to journalists in Abuja on Friday, the Chief of Mission, IOM Nigeria, Mr Franz Celestin, said less than five per cent of migrants usually made it to Europe, adding that the vast majority stay in Africa.

He further said that a lot of migrants were trafficked within the Economic Community of West African States, adding that Mali was the number one destination point for trafficked Nigerian women.

Responding to questions on the number of people who have undertaken the perilous trip to Europe through the Mediterranean, the IOM Chief said, “A combination of unemployment and underemployment is pushing people to migrate.

READ  Covid 19: Malawi yet to shut borders as Police boss speaks on containment strategy

“In this year, 29,000 migrants from Sub-Sahara Africa have migrated to Europe through the Mediterranean. About 13,000 were intercepted by the coastguard while 761 died.”

International Organisation of Migration (

Celestin stressed the importance of tackling human trafficking which he said grossed about $150 billion annually.

“Traffickers make a lot of money and they would continue to do it until a coordinated response is evolved to stop them. We are collaborating with Interpol in this respect; we are connected to the Interpol i/247 database. We connected the MIDAS to the Interpol database where we pass the information on traffickers to the Interpol,” he stated.

Celestin explained that the IOM has been involved in the biometric registration of children in the North-East, noting that the agency has registered no fewer than 17,053 children in 18 different internally displaced person camps between 2019 and May 2021 in Borno State.

The agency chief also disclosed that IOM was involved in the G7 Famine Prevention and Humanitarian Compact for North-East.

READ  Dilemma of Nigerian migrants: Stranded citizens cry to return home as  returnees plan traveling back

 

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