Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Deceased Migrants in South Africa: The Relevance of Objective 8 of the Global Compact for Migration


Sylvie van Lammeren


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Sylvie van Lammeren. Sylvie has held a variety of positions with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) since 1999, including as migration responsible in Southern Africa. She currently serves as legal adviser at the ICRC Headquarters in Geneva.  She holds a law degree from Maastricht University, a Master’s degree in International Relations from the Graduate Institute in Geneva, and a Master’s degree in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration from the University of London.

ICRC Commemoration of missing migrants in Zimbabwe
Photo: ICRC

The topic of deceased migrants is readily associated with alarming reports and horrific images of lifeless bodies of migrants drifting at European shores, and with land border crossings gone wrong in Mexico and Central America. Much less attention is given to those migrants who die at some point after having settled in a transit or destination country. While these migrant deaths are less visible and cause lesser debate as they remain within the remit of a state’s sovereign framework, for families searching their missing relatives, the anguish remains the same for either scenario. This post draws attention to these “in-country” deaths as opposed to “border-deaths”, which are under-estimated, under-reported and remain largely unaddressed by academic researchers, states and the international community.

South Africa is a prime destination country for migrants throughout Africa and beyond, despite bouts of xenophobic violence causing ill-treatment, displacement, and death of migrants. National statistics on deceased migrants are not available, but pioneering research from Brits, Steyn and Hansmeyer shed light on provincial statistics of Gauteng which has a high migrant population, indicate between 1300 and 1600 unidentified human remains yearly. Secondary identifications have shown that these include non-South Africans. The consequences are far reaching; if they remain unidentified, they will remain missing for their searching relatives.

IOM’s extensive research on missing migrants has found that in many countries, deaths of irregular migrants often remain unreported and subject to fewer investigations compared to other populations. South Africa is not an exception. Its legal framework broadly delivers the necessary elements to respectfully manage all deceased in its territory, but it lacks forensic capacity and procedures to harmonize the process to include deceased migrants. For instance, procedures allowing for the involvement of relatives – which is often indispensable to confirm an identity– do not exist.

Even if such procedures existed, relatives with an irregular status in South Africa may fear interaction with authorities. Also, many migrants with an irregular status in the country do not provide any biometric or other data, and their identification will often be impossible to realize. These factors point to systemic shortcomings in South Africa’s asylum and immigration system, which increase the migrants’ precarious situation as they remain irregularly in the country.

The 2018 Global Compact for Safe Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) is to date the most comprehensive global undertaking that addresses the phenomenon of missing and deceased migrants. In Objective 8, states agree to prevent death and injury of migrants and to identify the dead and the missing and to assist affected families. Calls for action on the issue of migration occurred at the backdrop of the European migration situation when it was faced with an increased influx of migrants, and the 2016 New York Declaration which paved the way for the GCM, focused on large movements and on the dangers along the migratory trajectory, and loss of lives along these routes. It cannot, however, have been the intention of the GCM drafters to exclude “in-country” migrant deaths which urgently requires as many “coordinated international efforts” by states and other relevant stakeholders as border deaths do.

The 2020 progress report of the UN Secretary General provided sobering findings for Objective 8: “[T]he imperative to save lives does not receive the priority action it deserves, despite the commitment to do so in the Global Compact.” Indeed, of the 26 African states who submitted voluntary progress reports in 2021, only 6 states reported on Objective 8. These contributions mainly focused on security operations, and on search and rescue efforts for missing migrants. Most reports do not make mention of efforts to improve identification efforts of deceased migrants, let alone of those who have resided in their country. Equally concerning is the seeming irrelevance of Objective 8 for many states, which do not consider themselves concerned when they are migrant-sending states, and reporting states are mainly those who are faced with stranded migrants. South Africa did not submit a voluntary progress report.

Some encouraging steps in the form of partnerships in South Africa and the region are nevertheless emerging: the ICRC has been drawing attention to missing and deceased migrants and has been instrumental in the setting up of a South African Oversight Committee for Missing Migrants in 2021 which addresses the plight of missing Zimbabwean migrants in South Africa. On a regional level, last year’s African Commission on Peoples’ and Human Rights’ Resolution on missing migrants and refugees in Africa and the impact on their families provides an important step in terms of awareness and a trigger for a move from promise to action. 

Missing migrants
Photo: ICRC

Objective 8 provides a blueprint for coordinated international collaboration and the creation of cooperation mechanisms aiming at increasing identifications of human remains, which are essential in the identification of deceased presumed migrants. In June 2022, a declaration of the International Migration Review Forum tracking the progress of the GCM, acknowledged progress made on transnational search mechanisms, cross-border operational cooperation and information-sharing, and the establishment of other internationally coordinated efforts on missing migrants. It requested the UN Secretary-General to include actionable recommendations on strengthening cooperation on missing migrants.

Identifying missing migrants in South Africa, [as elsewhere] requires forensic capacities, political resolve and the involvement of relatives. While the former two elements largely remain in the realm of national sovereignty, the implication of families of missing migrants are part of a broader requirement of coordinated international cooperation. It will be of utmost importance to develop actionable recommendations and ensure that states, including South Africa, consider themselves concerned with Objective 8. To this end further efforts must be made by the UN Migration Network and other stakeholders to clarify the scope and operationalize this objective.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

S. Lammeren. (2022) Deceased Migrants in South Africa: The Relevance of Objective 8 of the Global Compact for Migration. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2022/10/deceased-migrants-south-africa-relevance-objective-8. Accessed on: 26/05/2024

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