Migrant deaths have become a regular narrative in the news, with drownings of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea making headlines almost weekly. But a Dutch NGO reveals that there are many other migrant deaths that go unreported.
The Dutch NGO "United for Intercultural Action" (UNITED) documents migrant deaths like no other organization. Since 1993, it has compiled a list of reported fatalities among migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe, recording in detail the cause of death in each case. It also includes cases of people who have successfully managed to reach Europe but have died as a consequence of their migration.
"The List" - also known as the "List of Deaths" – seems almost morbid in its degree of detail, yet its aim is to serve as a tool to educate the public and migrants alike about the dangers of embarking on journeys to Europe. UNITED also hopes to influence politicians and policy-makers when it comes to shaping refugee policies.
Even at a glance, the list is sobering. "United for Intercultural Action" has documented a total of 34,361 fatalities in 25 years (as of May 2018). Only about 1,000 of those people have, however, been positively identified; about 97 percent of the deaths logged on "The List" remain anonymous to this day.
About 80 percent of the fatalities occurred during transit at sea, with dozens and sometimes hundreds of people being documented as casualties of the same fatal event - typically overfilled boats or dinghies capsizing in the Mediterranean. Some of those instances date back to the mid-1990s.
A small number of migrant deaths featured on "The List" highlights fatalities that occurred after migrants had reached Europe, with more than 500 deaths in 25 years occurring in places like deportation centers, detention facilities, asylum camps and first arrival centers. There are also noteworthy instances of suicide.
Stories of human suffering
At 56 single-spaced pages, "The List" is a compelling document that chronicles the horrors of migration. In addition to the vast number of drownings, some examples from the report include instances of brutality resulting in violent deaths - including over 100 examples involving authorities.
One case of a Nigerian man, Osamyia Aikpitanhi, in 2007 reads that he was "suffocated by police during deportation from Spain to Nigeria." There are also numerous cases, especially in 2016, in which migrants were reportedly "shot by Turkish border police while trying to cross from Syria to Turkey."
Other sections refer to the deep despair that migrants can experience during their journeys. One example from 2007 documents the death of a migrant stowaway on a plane who “fell from wheel bay" of the aircraft, having presumably died of hypothermia.
More recent cases also include the murder-suicide of an Eritrean woman, Snaid Tadese, in Germany, who "hanged herself out of despair in Eckolstädt asylum center" after strangling her 6-month-old baby. In 2017, a 10-year-old Afghan boy was "trampled to death" on a boat heading for the Greek island of Lesbos.
Real number of migrant deaths unknown
As official data on migrant deaths vary between countries both in reliability and accuracy, UNITED turned to various non-governmental sources in addition to trustworthy government information (such as coastguard records) to collect its data. Each case on "The List" mentions its source, with many of the records based on media reports as well as data from NGOs. UNITED says it uses more than 550 sources from 48 countries.
However, "The List" is not comprehensive. UNITED acknowledges there have likely been cases of double counting. In addition, many deaths remain unaccounted for. The bodies of large numbers of people who drowned in the Mediterranean have never been recovered, nor is it known how many migrants might have died in the Saharan desert. The British daily newspaper The Guardian recently said that the Sahara "may even be as deadly as the sea for those who would cross it."
"Most probably thousands more are never found. These are the consequences when Europe shuts its doors and eyes. Our message has been the same over the years – with increasingly higher numbers – each unnecessary death is one too many," UNITED says.
Deaths document migration trends
Over 25 years, UNITED has also observed changes and trends in refugee movements. In 1993, the NGO recorded 61 deaths. By 2017, it counted almost 4,000.
The background of those fleeing conflict and persecution has also changed. In the mid to late 1990s, large numbers were from Yugoslavia. By the year 2000, deaths of migrants from African countries under authoritarian control increased. Most died during sea crossings.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in a surge of refugees from the Middle East and Central Asia in the early and mid-2000s. At the same time conflicts in Sierra Leone, Sudan and Eritrea also led to rising numbers of refugees and consequent deaths.
Migration policies: A matter of life and death
The locations of deaths featured on "The List" also tell their own stories. While most violent deaths occurred on European soil before 2014, recently they have tended to happen in North Africa, where the EU has invested more than €2 billion in stopping people from migrating to Europe. Between 2014 and 2017, migrant deaths on European soil went down by half due to the EU initiative, while casualties in Africa have doubled.
UNITED tries to document the deaths of people not only trying to reach Europe, but also those who are deported from Europe, such as three Afghan men recently killed by the Taliban after being returned to Afghanistan.
The organization argues that people should only be deported from the EU if their safety can be guaranteed. "Regardless of the wisdom of authorities’ decisions, they have a duty to conduct deportation procedures in a way that prioritizes safety, welfare and preserves human dignity."