Wed, Nov 07, 2018 - Page 9 News List

‘They are human beings’:
56,800 migrants dead or missing

Tens of thousands of people who embarked on perilous journeys in search of a better life elsewhere have disappeared without a trace, leaving their loved ones back home in agonizing limbo

By Lori Hinnant and Bram Janssen  /  AP, JOHANNESBURG

Illustration: Mountain People

One by one, five to a grave, the coffins are buried in the red earth of the ill-kept corner of a South African cemetery. The scrawl on the cheap wood attests to their anonymity: “Unknown B/Male.”

These men were migrants from elsewhere in Africa with next to nothing who sought a living in the thriving underground economy of Gauteng Province, a name that roughly translates to “land of gold.” Instead of fortune, many found death, their bodies unnamed and unclaimed — more than 4,300 in Gauteng between 2014 and last year alone.

Some of those lives ended at the Olifantsvlei cemetery, in silence, among tufts of grass growing over tiny placards that read: Pauper Block. There are coffins so tiny that they could belong only to children.

As migration worldwide soars to record highs, far less visible has been its toll: The tens of thousands of people who die or simply disappear during their journeys, never to be seen again. In most cases, nobody is keeping track. Barely counted in life, these people do not register in death, as if they never lived at all.

An Associated Press (AP) tally has documented at least 56,800 migrants dead or missing worldwide since 2014 — almost double the number found in the world’s only official attempt to try to count them, by the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The IOM toll as of Oct. 1 was more than 28,500. The AP came up with almost 28,300 additional dead or missing migrants by compiling information from other international groups, requesting forensic records, missing persons reports and death records, and sifting through data from thousands of interviews with migrants.

The deaths and disappearances are the result of migration that is up 49 percent since the turn of the century, with more than 258 million international migrants last year, according to the UN.

A growing number have drowned, died in deserts or fallen prey to traffickers, leaving their families to wonder what on earth happened to them.

At the same time, anonymous bodies are filling cemeteries around the world, like the one in Gauteng.

The AP’s tally is still low. More bodies of migrants lie undiscovered in desert sands or at the bottom of the sea. Families do not always report loved ones as missing because they migrated illegally, or because they left home without saying exactly where they were headed.

The official UN toll focuses mostly on Europe, but even there cases fall through the cracks.

The political tide is turning against migrants in Europe just as in the US, where the government is cracking down heavily on caravans of Central Americans trying to get in.

One result is that money is drying up for projects to track migration and its costs.

For example, when more than 800 people died in an April 2015 shipwreck off the coast of Italy, Europe’s deadliest migrant sea disaster, Italian investigators pledged to identify them and find their families. More than three years later, under a new populist government, funding for this work is being cut off.

Beyond Europe, information is even more scarce. Little is known about the dead and missing in South America, where the Venezuelan migration is among the world’s biggest today, and in Asia, the top region for numbers of migrants.

The result is that governments vastly underestimate the toll of migration, a major political and social issue in most of the world today.

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