IOM released preliminary figures on Friday, 6 January for all migrant or refugee deaths worldwide in 2016 – reporting an estimate of 7,495 men, women and children dead or missing across five continents. That total compares to 5,267 in 2014 and 5,740 last year. The three-year total: 18,501.
Much of the increase is due to the more advanced research methods used by IOM’s Missing Migrants Project, although many IOM officials believe migrant routes also grew more deadly in 2016, particularly along the Central Mediterranean route between North Africa and Europe, where nearly 4,600 migrants perished last year (see https://missingmigrants.iom.int/latest-global-figures).
“These data – 18,501 deaths over three years – are simply shocking,” said William Lacy Swing, IOM’s Director General in Geneva. “That’s 1,096 days, according to the calendar – or almost 20 deaths per day. And we don’t believe we are anywhere near counting all of the victims. We are past the time for counting. We must act to make migration legal, safe and secure for all.”
According to IOM analysts, the Missing Migrants Project data point to two enduring trends. The first: that mature migration routes such as the Mesoamerican corridor linking Latin America to North America and the Central Mediterranean route linking the Sahara region to Southern Europe continue to operate at full capacity despite the efforts by destination countries to tamp down the number of arrivals. The second: that while some routes are becoming more deadly, the increase in data largely reflects the growing use of migrants relying on social media and personal, handheld devices to chronicle their journeys.
“Migrants, no matter how poorly educated or poor they are, are in almost constant communication with someone following their progress,” said Joel Millman, an IOM press officer who documented fatalities last year in Europe, Africa and Latin America. “They may be using Twitter or Facebook to find others from their family or village already on the road, or to contact a smuggler. Many times it’s migrants themselves who are the first to report deaths of fellow travellers.”
Millman said this trend has become particularly pronounced in Latin America, where deaths recorded in 2016 topped 700 – up from 488 the previous year and 491 in 2014. He said migrants’ SMS texts and Facebook posts often stop when they are in danger. That alerts relatives who quickly spread the word that a son, cousin or parent has gone missing. Sometimes those alerts lead to rescues. Sadly, they are more likely to result in searches that confirm the families’ worst fears, Millman said.
The IOM press officer cited a case from July 2016, when the remains of a 41-year-old Guatemalan woman were located by two Texas reporters just yards from a Texas highway where she succumbed to the searing summer heat. She had been dead for six days, authorities later concluded, and during that time her family – including a brother in New Jersey – had been trying desperately to find someone to locate their loved one.
“During the summer alerts like this are practically a daily occurrence, with entire websites and Facebook pages dedicated to finding people missing on the migrant trail,” Millman explained. “And these are just the ones we know to follow in Spanish or English. There likely are others we aren’t yet aware of in other languages, from places like the Horn of Africa, West Africa or Southeast Asia.”
Routes used by Iraqis, Pakistanis and Afghans crossing Iran and Turkey may be much deadlier than IOM tracking data currently reveal, Millman added. “The corridor linking Equatorial Africa to South Africa – where 78 migrant fatalities were recorded last year – is another region where we see more and more data, but we’re probably not seeing anything near a complete picture,” he said.
At the same time, some routes were deadly in 2016 in ways not seen in previous years. The sudden movement of thousands of Haitians leaving Brazil to multiple destinations in North and South America has resulted in reports of deaths of Haitian migrants in Chile, Ecuador, Mexico and Central America, something that was extremely rare in years past, Millman said. Growing numbers of Cubans crossing Colombia and Panama’s Darien Gap also resulted in new “clusters” of migrant deaths that IOM had heard little about in previous years.
It’s important to note, Millman concluded, that data will continue to be processed in coming weeks. Reports of some 300 Mediterranean Sea casualties have arrived in recent days, but have not been fully vetted. Two large counties on the US-Mexico border also have reported recently that the remains of dozens of migrants have been found since the beginning of January 2016. Still, it’s not yet clear how many of those cases IOM’s Missing Migrants Project already has entered into its current totals, and how many are new cases. IOM continuously learns of deaths from previous years as well, which raise totals for 2014 and 2015 once they are recorded.
“It’s likely we won’t ever get a true, final number for all these tragedies,” Millman said. “We hope for the day when these numbers begin dropping. But that may not come for a while, yet.”
For the latest Mediterranean Update infographic: http://migration.iom.int/docs/MMP/Mediterranean_Update_170106_02.pdf
For latest arrivals and fatalities in the Mediterranean, please visit: http://migration.iom.int/europe
Learn more about the Missing Migrants Project at: http://missingmigrants.iom.int