When people go missing on migration journeys, their disappearance has reverberating effects on anyone who loves or depends on them. Some of the implications of such a loss can be exacerbated due to long-standing forms of gender-based inequalities.
“I was five months pregnant while he was moving to South Africa. Then I gave birth after four months; he left Ethiopia. You see…. I don’t know how I am going to raise these kids. I sold everything we had to search for information and to make international calls to his friends, relatives and sometimes to the brokers. Now the moneylenders are asking me to pay back as per agreement or they will take the land. Yet, I can’t pay their money and the interest. The debt is increasing every year. Initially, we thought that my husband would pay back the money we have taken [once] he arrived in South Africa.” (Woman whose husband went missing on his migration journey to South Africa).
In 2020, IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (IOM GMDAC) carried out research in Ethiopia, Spain, the United Kingdom (UK) and Zimbabwe with the aim of learning how people with missing migrant relatives cope with the absence of their loved ones while actively seeking answers, and how they could be better supported in their efforts by governments and other actors. A key finding from the research is that gender shapes people’s experiences of searching for and coping with the absence of a loved one lost during migration, alongside ethnic identity, racialization, citizenship/immigration status, class, sexuality, ability, language or religion.
Women’s experiences of the search
Conversations with families in the four countries revealed how gender perceptions can create barriers and challenges for people carrying out the search, which consistently places women at a disadvantage.
For example, decisions on when, where and how to search for missing relatives are often shaped by gender norms. Gendered and stereotyped perceptions of women as overly emotional, sensitive or fragile often limit their access to information and their level of decision-making concerning the search. Within families and communities, men often take decisions to restrict the amount of information concerning the search that is shared with women, in an attempt to “reduce their suffering” or to “protect them”. This does not only hinder communication, but often results in women’s perspectives, needs and priorities being dismissed. Omar  for instance, who has been searching for his older brother who went missing on his journey to Spain, told us: “There are times when I need to hold back information from my mother to protect her. […Because] she cries often, on important holidays she remembers him a lot.”
Women also told us how they faced limited or restricted access to social spaces where they could conduct a search, as these were often spaces dominated by men. This issue was evident in Munish’s reflections on the search for her brother, who went missing on his journey to the UK: “We have an association and sometimes I want to go there to ask people. But being a woman, it is not that easy because it is mostly men who attend the meetings. […] Women are not banned from attending the meetings, but it is complicated. […] It is frowned upon in the community to mix with men that way, so no woman really does it.”
Women’s experiences with socio-economic precarity also affect their involvement in search processes. Many women we spoke with held unstable and low-paid jobs, often had insecure migration status and faced socio-economic hardships, which limited their ability to search for missing loved ones. Besides the unavailability of time to participate in searches as a result of work, caregiving or household duties, this precarity also increased their proximity to sexual and gender-based violence. Some women shared experiences of sexual harassment and demands for sex in exchange for assistance with their search. Habibi, a Pakistani woman in the UK who is searching for her mother and three siblings, was sexually assaulted by men who had promised to help her with her search: “[…] He said he could help me with the search. He invited me to his flat so that we could use his computer to send messages. And that’s how it happened. Both him and a friend of his.”
Women were also disproportionally impacted by the financial costs of searching for their missing loved ones, repatriating their remains, and repaying the debt from their loved one’s journey. A woman whose husband went missing on his migration journey to South Africa told us: “I was left on my own with kids to feed. I was left alone with the debts we acquired to pay for his travel […]. I want to feed my children. I want to send them [to] school. But how can I do all these alone?”
Besides the emotional toll on loved ones, not having legal proof of disappearance or death can have terrible consequences when it comes to obtaining state support or custody of children (and can even be a barrier to reunification with family members in other countries), re-marrying and accessing inheritance or property, given traditions and customs that privilege men. A woman in Ethiopia, whose husband has not been heard from after migrating, told us: “I can’t talk about property or inherit the land before I get proof of the death of my husband. According to the tradition, his brothers control the land. I can’t go to the courts and get into a fight with his relatives.”
Women (and particularly those with missing husbands) may face social stigma connected to the absence of their relatives. In Ethiopia, the death or disappearance of a husband is often blamed on the “bad luck” of his wife who stayed behind. In the UK, women reported facing social pressures to remain faithful to their missing partners, but also criticism if they remained single or on their own for too long, particularly if they were still in their reproductive years. Men with missing wives did not report experiencing this same social pressure.
“It is very difficult for me as a single mother. It is five years now [of] people telling me every day to forget him and find a new man before it is too late for me to have more children,” explained Emeka, whose husband went missing on his migration journey to the UK.
A need for more intersectional and gender-sensitive support for families of missing migrants
There is no doubt that the impacts of deaths or disappearances in the context of migration increase the vulnerability and challenges already faced by those missing them. However, among the people interviewed for this research, men were the majority of those who were reported as dead or missing, which meant that women often carried out the search while also conducting other social obligations. This research demonstrated how women are actually turning to each other for help, creating informal collaborative networks and advocating for the rights of the missing.
But they can’t do it alone. There is a need for more intersectional and gender-sensitive support from states, international organizations, and NGOs to help people search for their missing migrant loved ones and to manage the longer-term impacts of the loss.
 Kate Dearden and Marta Sánchez Dionis work as a Project Officers at IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) on the Missing Migrants Project.
Another boat tragedy off North Africa’s Atlantic Coast stark reminder of perilous sea journeys
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, say the deaths of 47 people who were onboard a boat heading to the Canary Islands from North Africa’s Atlantic coast highlight the urgent need for more support to prevent further tragedies at sea.
The boat left on 3 August carrying 54 people, including three children. After two days at sea, engine failure left passengers stranded without food or water for nearly a fortnight. When located by the Mauritanian coast guard on 16 August, only seven people were alive on board.
Survivors were taken to Mauritania’s northern city of Nouadhibou for medical treatment. Four people in critical condition were transferred to hospital. UNHCR is working to provide assistance and to determine whether any survivors have international protection needs.
The latest tragedy comes just 10 days after another 40 people lost their lives along the same route. It adds to the spiraling number of deaths, as more vessels depart for the Canary Islands. As of January this year, more than 350 people have died, while over 8,000 refugees and migrants have reached Spain using this sea route.
Meanwhile, since October 2020, more than 1,200 people have been rescued off the Mauritanian coast and received medical assistance as part of a first aid programme set up by IOM.
IOM and UNHCR are appealing for more support, to be able to continue their lifesaving interventions, including through screening, medical and psychosocial aid.
“Our top priority is to provide safe and viable alternatives to the dangerous journeys undertaken by refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean, as per the objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees,” said Maria Stavropoulou, UNHCR’s Representative in Mauritania. “UNHCR is working to increase the identification of those with international protection needs travelling along these routes and provide assistance in the countries that host them.”
IOM’s Chief of Mission in Mauritania, Boubacar Seybou, said the organization was concerned that many rescued at sea end up in administrative detention.
“In accordance with the recommendations included in the Global Compact for Migration, alternatives must also be available to survivors, who have already suffered heavy medical and psychosocial trauma,” Seybou said. “We are working closely with authorities “to accelerate the implementation of new assistance and protection measures, and to strengthen the fight against traffickers and smuggler networks.”
IOM and UNHCR are urging the international community to support efforts to identify and assist those with international protection and other specific needs, to create safe and legal pathways, establish alternatives to detention, and strengthen search and rescue capacity off the coast of Mauritania.
Response capacities stretched with hasty return of 40,000 Ethiopian migrants
Ethiopia – The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is urgently appealing for funds to respond to the needs of 40,000 Ethiopian migrants returning from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Over 30,000 have arrived in Ethiopia over the last two weeks, at the rate of over 2,600 people a day. More than 20,400 (68 per cent) are from parts of Tigray and Amhara regions which are in the midst of conflict in Northern Ethiopia that has displaced nearly two million people.
The returns of Ethiopian migrants follow a bilateral agreement between the governments of Ethiopia and KSA.
According to IOM, USD 740,000 is needed to provide assistance for every 10,000 migrants returning. This is for essentials such as medical treatment, supplies for babies and infants such as diapers, clothing, help with finding and tracing family members, and reunifying them or providing alternative care arrangements as appropriate, as well as to respond to protection concerns.
“This sudden upsurge in returns poses a major challenge to our ability to assist the returnees – many of whom require medical and psychosocial assistance, support reuniting with their families, and livelihood options that would help to diminish the appeal of irregular re-migration to KSA and other countries of destination,” says Maureen Achieng, IOM Chief of Mission in Ethiopia.
“Our response is seriously underfunded and barely reaching the needs of returnees in the provision of essential basic and specialized assistance, including for unaccompanied migrant children, pregnant and lactating mothers, and victims of trafficking.”
Many of the migrants will require help to return and reintegrate back into their communities. Reintegration assistance is therefore vital to supporting the returnees psychologically, and to find work and stability, to help them avoid irregular migration, and exploitation by trafficking and smuggling rings.
The returning migrants are among the target population included in the Regional Migrant Response Plan 2021-2024 (MRP) for the Horn of Africa and Yemen, a USD 99 million appeal launched by IOM and 39 partners in March 2021 to address the protection needs, risks and vulnerabilities of migrants along this route. The MRP is underfunded and urgently requires additional resources to carry out its response, including for this target population.
While recognizing the sovereign right of States to determine their national migration policy and their prerogative to govern migration within their jurisdiction, in conformity with international law, IOM, as part of the United Nations Network on Migration, reaffirms its commitment to keeping everyone safe. It means that all Member States need to ensure that collective expulsions of migrants and asylum-seekers must be halted; that protection needs, including international protection, must be individually assessed; and that the rule of law and due process must be observed. It also means prioritizing protection, including every child’s best interest, under the obligations in international law.
IOM provides over 1,300 migrants with emergency shelter and assistance on the Canary Islands
Madrid – As more migrants arrive in the Canary Islands, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has provided shelter, protection services, medical, legal and other types of assistance to 1,361 migrants on Tenerife.
The arrival of more than 23,000 people in the Canary Islands by sea in 2020, particularly in the last three months of the year, strained the reception capacity and COVID-19 has further complicated the response. In November 2020, the Government of Spain announced “Plan Canarias” to renovate and expand the archipelago’s reception facilities to accommodate and assist 7,000 migrants.
Since 26 February this year, IOM has been operating at the Las Canteras Emergency Reception Facility (ERF) on Tenerife to support the Spanish government in managing the site. The EU-funded facility is an open centre which can accommodate as many as 1,100 people.
“Our priority is to support Spain with site management to provide safe and dignified living conditions and tailored services for migrants who have arrived via extremely treacherous journeys to the Canary Islands,” said Maria Jesús Herrera, Head of IOM’s Office in Spain.
Today, some 300 migrants are staying at the facility from Morocco, Senegal, Mali, Guinea Conakry, Guinea Bissau, Sudan, The Gambia, Mauritania and Côte d’Ivoire.
At Las Canteras, IOM provides meals, core relief items, water and sanitation, maintenance, and Multipurpose Cash Assistance. The Organization also offers protection assistance, which includes vulnerability assessments, Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS), primary health care, legal information and counselling for family reunification or international protection, and assistance with transfers of eligible vulnerable migrants to the mainland.
IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) is also available to migrants who wish to return to their country of origin.
Marouane, a 27-year-old from Morocco, had arrived at the facility on 6 March. One year ago, he risked a harrowing sea journey towards the islands.
“For three days, you hang out with death, you see it. But if you don’t die, then you get there,” he told IOM in May.
To date, IOM has provided legal counselling to more than 780 people seeking asylum, in cooperation with UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency. IOM also ensured – through close collaboration with the Spanish authorities – the referral and transfer of some 682 migrants to other specialized centres on the islands and the mainland.
The Organization also works closely with the municipality of La Laguna to engage with neighbourhood associations, the Tenerife council, civil society, citizens and local actors in the interest of transparency, mutual exchange, and social cohesion.
“We consider the people hosted in Las Canteras centre as citizens of La Laguna municipality. We therefore try to collaborate as much as possible so that they also benefit from the activities organized by the City Council,” said José Luis Hernandez, Environment Councillor from the La Laguna City Hall.
Arrivals to the Canary Islands on the Western Africa-Atlantic Route this year have reached 7,309 – more than double the number of arrivals at the same time last year. Some 23,848 migrants have reached Spain irregularly via all land and sea routes so far this year.
The project at Las Canteras,“Supporting the Spanish Authorities in managing an Emergency Reception Facility on the Canary Islands”, is funded by the EU (European Commission, DG Home). The overall management of the ERF is under the coordination of the Site Manager of the Spanish Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration.
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