Migrants abandoned in the Sahara desert | Photo: Sylla Ibrahima Sory
Migrants abandoned in the Sahara desert | Photo: Sylla Ibrahima Sory

Every year, hundreds of people go missing on their way to Europe. While the Mediterranean Sea is infamous for being one of the deadliest migration routes, other places such as the Sahara desert are also extremely dangerous. InfoMigrants spoke with Lucile Marbeau, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

InfoMigrants: How many missing persons are being sought by the Red Cross?

Lucile Marbeau: The Red Cross has developed a website to help people locate missing relatives on the migratory road to Europe: Trace the face. This platform is a database which allows us to count the number of families who approach us to initiate search requests.

Until 2021, there were 16,500 people registered, searching for 25,600 missing persons. On average, one family per week is reunited thanks to Trace the Face.

IM: Are some nationalities more common among missing persons?

LM: On Trace the Face, there are many Afghans. The other most represented nationalities are Syrians, Eritreans, Iraqis and Somalis. But there are also Congolese and Tunisians people, for example.

IM: Why could the figure of 25,600 missing be underestimated? 

LM: Invisible shipwrecks can happen at sea. This means that whole boats disappear without anyone knowing about it. In this case, people disappear without leaving any trace or witnesses.

There may also be families who do not report the disappearance of a loved one. These people are therefore not included in our database.

We also know that some borders are extremely dangerous. The Mediterranean, the Atlantic (towards the Canaries) or the Aegean Sea are places known to be very dangerous. But tragedies can happen in other places too: the Sahara desert, for example, is a vast cemetery of unknown victims.

Also read: Alarm Phone Sahara saving lives in the desert

IM: How do people disappear on migratory routes?

LM: The most well-known disappearances are those at sea, but people can also disappear on the European continent, especially when crossing land borders.

Many families are separated at the border and lose contact at that point. Others have their phones stolen, or lose it on the way. If migrants have not kept the telephone numbers of their relatives, they can have great difficulty in contacting them later. Families may not hear from them for months and report them missing.

Not all missing persons are dead. Some migrants are alive but cannot be found or contacted. We have already had a surprising case of siblings separated for many years, even though they lived in the same country: two brothers were looking for each other while they both lived in Germany, only a few kilometers away from each other.

IM: What advice would you give to migrants so that they do not lose contact with their loved ones?

LM: It is essential to write down the telephone number of one or more relatives on a piece of paper. Ideally, this document should be laminated to prevent it from getting wet when crossing the sea or a river.

If possible, you should also try to have the children you are traveling with memorize the telephone numbers in case you get separated on the road.

If you are stopped by the police, you should ask the authorities -- if possible -- to stay with your family. Some are locked up in detention without any means of contacting the outside world and lose track of their children.

Also read: Niger's migrant smugglers use ever deadlier routes through the Sahara

IM: What are the impacts of a disappearance on family members?

LM: Behind the figures of disappearances, there are families who are affected. It is very difficult because these people do not know whether their loved one is dead or alive. You have to be aware of the families' hopes and understand that without proof or a body, it is normal for them to continue to hope.

It is very complicated and painful to live with, because they are unable to mourn.

There are also significant administrative, social and economic consequences. When a person disappears, life is frozen in many ways: a widow who is not recognized as such and therefore cannot remarry, a relative who cannot access the bank account of the disappeared person, a family plunged into precariousness since the disappearance of the father who provided food for his wife and children... All these situations can be terrible.

To support them as best as possible, the Red Cross provides psycho-social support to the families. We set up legal initiatives by working with local authorities to enact a law recognizing disappearances and to give the families a status. We also provide financial support, most often for women whose husbands have disappeared and who have to become the head of the family. We also organize support groups to allow families to meet and exchange on their experience in the presence of a psychologist.

IM: How does the Red Cross go about finding missing people?

LM: It's a very time-consuming process. We work from two different starting points.

It can be through the families who approach us through our local offices. In this case, we open a search request and direct them to the Trace the Face website. They post the photo of their loved one.

But not everyone wants to expose themselves publicly. In this case, we help them through a long and difficult interview to find out the circumstances of the disappearance and to recover as much information as possible. Then we network and exchange our data with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation and local Red Crosses to carry out searches.

The other axis is based on recovered and unidentified bodies. We collect information about the remains (jewelry, tattoos, piercings, fractures, etc.) and we try to find the families. We try to diversify our sources by talking to survivors of the same boat for example. It's like putting pieces of a puzzle together to get an identity and find the families. It's a long and tedious task.

We are aware that not all the disappeared are found. However, families have the right to receive an answer and our duty is to formulate one. But without the body, the answer can only be partial. By working on the events, by crossing our sources, we must be able to give a solid answer. It is a huge responsibility to announce the death of a loved one without providing a body.

Also read: Algerian desert: The 'point zero' where migrants are abandoned

IM: What steps should be taken when looking for a loved one?

LM: You should contact your local Red Cross. (For contact details, click here.)

It is important to have collected all useful information beforehand: place and date of departure, traveling companions, destination, physical characteristics (tattoos, piercings, etc.). The more information we can get, the better.

We are often the last resort for families. They first turn to fellow travelers or relatives in the country of arrival. When their search is unsuccessful, they contact us.

They should not hesitate to do so quickly, and thus delegate a search right to us on their behalf. The families can trust us because we do it for humanitarian reasons.

Also read: Missing migrants: A family's lonely search for a lost brother


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