Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Resisting Invisibility: Mothers of Missing Migrants



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6 Minutes

Guest post by Marta Sánchez Dionis. Marta works as a Project Officer for IOM’s Missing Migrants Project. Previously, she worked with several human rights organizations on issues of migration, gender and access to justice.

Roberto Adonai Bardales Jiménez was only 14 when he left his hometown in El Salvador, fleeing poverty and violence in search of safety and a better life. He called his mother, Rosa Idalia Jiménez, just before crossing the border near Tamaulipas, Mexico into the United States more than five years ago. It was the last time Rosa heard from him.

Rosa Idalia Jiménez (Photo: Marta Sánchez Dionis)

Rosa shared her story at the first-ever Global Summit of Mothers of Missing Migrants. The Summit took place in Mexico City 2–4 November 2018 as part of the 8th World Social Forum on Migration. More than 45 mothers and other family members from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Senegal, Mauritania, Tunisia and Algeria came to share their experiences searching for information on the whereabouts of their children, to build ties and to strategize together. The Summit was convened by the Mexican NGO network Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano and the Italian Carovane Migranti, two organizations which assist mothers and families of missing migrants in Central America and Italy, respectively. Insights shared in this blog draw on my conversations and observations during the Summit, which I attended as an observer on behalf of IOM’s Missing Migrants Project.

Una madre nunca se cansa de buscar’: the caravans of mothers of missing migrants

The Global Summit is rooted in a years-old tradition: since 2005, Central American mothers have organized a yearly Caravana de Madres de Migrantes Desaparecidos (Caravan of Mothers of Missing Migrants), which crosses Mexican territory in search of the children who went missing trying to reach the United States, and to advocate for the protection of migrants’ rights. The border between Mexico and the United States, as well as the northward journeys originating in Central America, can be very dangerous for migrants. IOM’s Missing Migrants Project estimates that at least 1,808 migrants have died along the US-Mexico border in the last five years. Still more migrants lose their lives or disappear transiting through Mexico, where the scale of deaths is difficult to measure. IOM has documented more than 570 deaths in Central America since 2014, although various sources suggest migrants may be dying or disappearing in large numbers along this stretch of the migration route. The Mexican National Human Rights Commission estimated that more than 11,000 migrants were kidnapped during a six-month period in 2010. Behind each death or disappearance, there is a family searching for someone irreplaceable.

Photo: Marta Sánchez Dionis

With more than 60,000 deaths recorded during migration worldwide in the past 20 years, mothers searching for their missing children is a global reality. In the Mediterranean, IOM estimates that at least 17,000 people have lost their lives trying to reach Europe since 2014 – more than four out of five of these fatalities occurred in the Central Mediterranean route between North Africa and Italy. Since 2014, the Italian NGO Carovane Migranti, inspired by the Central American Caravan of Mothers, has organized annual marches across Italy, bringing activists and families of the missing from the French-Italian border at Ventimiglia to Sicily. This year, for the first time, the fourth caravan connected the two shores of the Mediterranean by travelling through Italy and Tunisia.

Hijo, escucha, tu madre está en la lucha’: mothers as political activists

Public marches of mothers and family members are a form of political activism for the human rights of migrants and refugees (see work by Atac, Rygiel and Stierl). The mothers who attended the Global Summit shared that they had often been condemned for challenging gender norms while advocating for the rights of the missing and seeking the truth about their lost loved ones. The Summit and different caravans of mothers provide opportunities for women to emerge as activists and representatives of their communities.

The politicization of motherhood has played a key role in historical struggles for human rights, particularly in the Latin American context. Latin American women are part of a long-standing history of mobilization for the right to know the fate of missing relatives centred around the mother as a political actor (see work by Stefanie Kron).

Many of the mothers at the Summit began mobilizing because of their personal tragedies. Their original aim was a personal and private one: clarifying the fate of their missing children. Their role as mothers, but also sisters, wives or grandmothers, was connected to the traditional gendered role of women within the family, as the mother who loves, mourns and cares for others.

However, their objective gradually transformed into a public one. Without adequate search mechanisms, mothers were left to navigate confusing institutions and bureaucracy. Mothers turned to each other for help: they connected with other affected families to share their grief, to sustain hope and to unite in their searches for their missing children. Eventually, they encountered other migrants’ rights activists, and, little by little, their private demand to find their children transformed into a public demand for truth and justice for all missing migrants. Now, the mothers’ demands go beyond their own missing children: they urge States to recognize all migrants as right-holders and worth protecting.

Photo: Marta Sánchez Dionis

The collective failure to name the dead is how the anonymity and invisibility of missing migrants is perpetuated. With their activism, the mothers of missing migrants also ‘humanize’ their children in the face of nameless and often-incomplete statistics or media stories. They remind the international community that each missing person is a son, a daughter, a partner, a sister, a brother – and, ultimately, a human being deserving of dignity and respect. The mothers tell their stories, carry their photos, repeat their names, and force us to pay attention to the trace they left on the world.

No estás sola’: the Summit as a space for healing

The Summit of Mothers of Missing Migrants was largely a self-organized, grassroots initiative, conceived as a space for mothers to meet each other, connect and organize collectively to effect change. The grassroots nature of the Summit builds on the self-organization of relatives of missing migrants across Central America and North and West Africa, who have come together in local associations of families to share their grief.

Mothers view the Caravans and the Summit as a space to raise awareness of the tragedy of missing migrants and to remind authorities that action is needed to prevent this from continuing to happen. However, such initiatives are also a space for healing, a place where mothers come together, united in their pain, their grief and the love they have for their missing children. During the Summit, the mothers sang to each other when a speaker would become tearful: ‘You are not alone! Your children are my children, and my children are your children!’

Spaces such as the Summit and Caravans of Mothers allow for collective mourning, which operates as an informal therapeutic mechanism. Families of missing migrants face extensive emotional hardships caused by their ambiguous loss, and formal psychosocial support is difficult to access for most (see Mediterranean Missing Project).

Reemplazando las lágrimas por la movilización y la esperanza’: what lies ahead?

The mothers’ demands for migrants’ rights and for truth and justice for their missing sons and daughters were compiled in a manifesto, drafted collaboratively on the last day of the Summit. A broad list of actions were also agreed upon, including joint advocacy campaigns around key events, a commitment to support regional advocacy and commemoration initiatives, and the creation of an online platform to coordinate their efforts.

Photo: Marta Sánchez Dionis

However, families of the missing are highly dispersed across dozens of countries, and civil society organizations supporting them often operate on shoestring budgets. The remote living conditions and limited financial means of many families of the missing complicates their participation in collective efforts. In countries where authorities are intolerant of migration, the political mobilization of families of missing migrants can be outright dangerous.

Nevertheless, the mothers persist. They retrace the steps of their missing loved ones and transform those spaces of violence into spaces of hope and solidarity (see work by Wendy A. Vogt). They bring their shared experiences of loss, grief and injustice into the public sphere. They refuse to let their children be forgotten. As they express themselves in their manifesto:

‘Nothing can stop a mother who is searching for her son or daughter. Mothers will bring down all the barriers and cover all the necessary kilometres until they reach the truth.’

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Sánchez Dionis, M. (2018) Resisting Invisibility: Mothers of Missing Migrants Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/12/resisting (Accessed [date])

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