Missing Migrants, Missing Solutions? Reviewing GCM objective 8 in West Africa

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Irene Schöfberger
Data and Research Officer at IOM´s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC)

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Guest post by Irene Schöfberger.  Irene is a Data and Research Officer at IOM´s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC). This post is based on a recent Missing Migrants Project policy brief, “Missing migrants, Missing solutions? Reviewing Objective 8 of the Global Compact for Migration in West Africa”, co-written by the author with Andrea García Borja and Wilfried Coly.

Migrant woman, Mauritania
Migrant woman, Mauritania

More than 2,100 migrants have died in West Africa and on overseas routes from the region to Europe since 2014, according to data from IOM’s Missing Migrants Project
(MMP), but many more likely remain undocumented.

In 2020, Mamadou and 57 other migrants took the sea route to Spain and only 11 survived. He says: “On board, many were dying. We just sat there and waited for the death to come. Some (…) threw the corpses of the others overboard. Now, their families will always think that their child has arrived in Spain and has never called them.” The Spanish NGO Caminando Fronteras lists many more migrants currently missing: these are mostly young persons with hopes, projects, and dreams.

The international community has adopted commitments to prevent migrants´ deaths and disappearances, but implementation remains limited. In 2018, Objective 8 of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) called on States to “save lives and establish coordinated international efforts on missing migrants”. Most West African and European states are furthermore parties to pre-existing international conventions and charters on the rights to life, to liberty and to security of the person, and on search and rescue (SAR), particularly at sea.

However, in 2022 commitments on saving lives and missing migrants remain scarcely implemented worldwide, as highlighted in a recent statement by the UN Migration Network and in the latest UN Secretary-General report on the GCM.

Measures to save lives and address the needs of families of missing migrants remain poorly implemented in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and in West Africa-European Union (EU) processes. In particular, the GCM review process and our analysis reveal that GCM objective 8 in the ECOWAS, is scarcely integrated into national and transnational policies and measures, and that indications on specific strategies and responsibilities remain limited.

At the regional level, the revised Migration Policy Framework for Africa (2018) partially addresses action 8.a, namely the establishment of SAR systems, but only focuses on situations at sea.  In turn, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights Resolution 486 on missing migrants and refugees in Africa and the impact on their families (2021) takes a ground-breaking and more comprehensive approach: it addresses all actions recommended in Objective 8 and provides further recommendations, calling for collaboration within and across countries and regions.Implementation is even slower at the national level, only Niger and Nigeria have adopted policy provisions addressing some of the actions GCM objective 8 recommends. Moreover, only Niger and Senegal are currently implementing relevant programmatic measures, such as the establishment of an Interministerial Committee for the Management of Human Remains in Niger.

Truck with migrants, Niger
Truck with migrants, Niger

West Africa-EU processes have also dedicated scarce attention to migrants´ deaths and disappearances. Documents such as the EU-African Union (AU) Abidjan Summit Declaration and the Valletta Action Plan have furthermore often linked the prevention of migration fatalities and SAR operations to the deterrence of irregular migration and tended to neglect risks on land routes. This has implications for programming,too: as EU funding remains crucial for migration and development programming in the region, funding frameworks that do not adequately address Objective 8 or that couple it with the prevention of irregular migration contribute to poor progress.

A key challenge is that we don’t know enough about the risks of dying or going missing during migration and about migrant deaths within and from West Africa. In fact, there are no official sources that collate and publish data on migrant deaths and disappearances in the region. Testimonies of migrants, such as Mamadou, who witnessed the deaths of others they were traveling with are the main source of information available in the region. Factors such as scarce resources and dedicated capacities at the national level, as well as the lack of harmonizing terminologies and data sharing platforms at the transnational level, hinder the collection and dissemination of comprehensive and timely data.

Of the 2,100 deaths recorded by MMP, 430 were women and almost 250 children. Half of these deaths occurred in attempts to cross the Sahara Desert and one in ten took place on the route from West Africa to the Canary Islands. In the same period, at least 1,600 West African nationals died or disappeared during migration worldwide. However, available data are underestimates, and the identities and demographic characteristics of most people who have died or gone missing are unknown. The lack of data also extends to the impact on families and communities left behind, many of whom never learn the fate of a lost loved one due to a lack of efforts to recover human remains and identify them. In addition, the available evidence is often not adequately used to inform policymaking and programming processes.

In the absence of a clear and comprehensive evidence base, policy documents have framed saving lives and missing migrant cases differently. Such narratives have, in turn, been key to advocating and justifying policy and programmatic approaches. Civil society organizations and the AHCRP´s 486 Resolution have framed this issue in terms of human rights and called for greater protection. Meanwhile, EU-AU processes have focused more on irregular migration and smuggling. These processes have also given more visibility to fatalities on maritime routes to Europe than to those occurring on land, and have neglected factors likely to increase the risk of dying or going missing, such as situations of irregularity, detention and a lack of access to healthcare, and basic needs such as adequate food, water and shelter. Such security-oriented narratives have been key to their call for greater deterrence of irregular migration.

The human cost of the lack of implementation of GCM objective 8 and further international human rights commitments is unacceptable. More needs to be done to protect migrants like Mamadou from the risk of death and disappearance.  In West Africa, GCM objective 8 needs to be mainstreamed in national and international policies, programmes, and international obligations on the rights to life need to be respected. Actions on saving lives and missing migrants should not be linked with the deterrence of irregular migration. Data and evidence on migrant deaths and on risks of dying or going missing during migration need to be improved, and their use for policymaking ensured. Transnational and participatory approaches and partnerships will be key for future actions. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

I. Schöfberger. (2022) Missing Migrants, Missing Solutions? Reviewing GCM objective 8 in West Africa. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/blog-post/2022/07/missing-migrants-missing-solutions-reviewing-gcm-objective-8-west-africa. Accessed on: 28/11/2022

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