Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Politics of Counting Migrants’ Deaths in the Mediterranean



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Guest post by Charles Heller and Antoine Pécoud. Charles is co-director of the Forensic Oceanography project based at Goldsmiths, University of London and Antoine is a Professor at University of Sorbonne Paris Nord. This is the seventh post of Border Criminologies themed series on 'Deaths at Borders' organised by Marta Esperti and Antoine Pécoud. The series draws upon a special issue of American Behavioral Scientist, coordinated by Marta and Antoine.

The ongoing crisis of migration policies in the Euro-Mediterranean region has made migrant deaths more visible and debated. As a consequence, death tolls have become an almost daily feature of the news about migration in the region. But where do these numbers come from, and what are their political implications?

The first to start counting border deaths were civil society organisations (CSOs). In Europe, it began with the NGO United for Intercultural Action that, since 1993, has been releasing and updating a List of deaths (which as of April 2020 contained 36,570 casualties). In 2004, Le Monde Diplomatique published the first map of migrant deaths at European borders, which has since then been regularly updated in cooperation with the Migreurop network. Over the past years, the crisis has spurred new initiatives, like the Dutch project on The Human Costs of Border Control or a media initiative entitled The Migrants’ Files.

By counting the migrant deaths that are the structural outcome of the exclusionary European border regime, civil society initiatives have filled the void left by states. Indeed, governments do not count migrant deaths: they collect data on migrants who enter their territory alive and, for epidemiological and sanitary purposes, also count the deaths that occur on their soil. But they do not document the deaths of the migrants trying to reach their country. To a large extent, this attitude stems from states’ reluctance to acknowledge the dark side of their migration politics: governments never recognize their responsibility in migrant deaths and systematically blame ‘smugglers’ and ‘traffickers’ for these casualties.

The United list of deaths displayed in Strasbourg in front of the European Parliament during an event organised by the Collective for another migration policy, 28 April 2015

Drawing from Foucault, James Scott argues that it is through the production of data that states ‘see’ reality. Statistics enable them to apprehend their population – and to govern it (as indicated by the etymological proximity between the words state and statistics). The corollary is that, without statistics, reality remains invisible. Certain issues will therefore be ignored, not because they do not exist, but because they are not documented. Not all aspects of social life are documented: certain topics are the object of scrutiny, while others are not - and such differences of treatment often have to do with politics in the broad sense, that is to say with what is deemed socially and politically relevant.

Clearly, migrant deaths are on the hidden side: the absence of data has both reflected and contributed to their occlusion and neglect. Even when they are immediately observable, for example when corpses come ashore on beaches full of tourists in the Italian island of Lampedusa, they risk remaining anecdotal and isolated incidents. Statistics instead have the power to transform the multiplicity of disconnected local casualties into a global phenomenon that becomes the object of media coverage and political attention. This is why CSOs challenge states’ often monopolistic position in the production of statistics and generate their own data.

The politics of data also pervade another key aspect of statistical activity, namely definitions and categories. There is indeed no precise definition of what constitutes a ‘migrant death’. Statistics are still in their infancy: there are no harmonized definitions yet among different CSOs. Many of the initiatives mentioned above focus on the Mediterranean and count mainly deaths at sea. By contrast, United for Intercultural Action adopts a larger definition that encompasses, for example, the deaths that occur far away from Europe (like in Sub-Saharan Africa), the deaths inside European countries (for example in detention centers), and even the suicides committed by migrants at any stage of their journey. The argument is that all these migrants, whatever the causes of their deaths, are victims of the violence of European migration policies.

Differences in definitions lead to different interpretations of states’ responsibilities and of the way governments should react to migrant deaths. In a narrow understanding, migrant deaths are restricted to the deaths that occur at sea and the key issue is to prevent them by humanitarian measures of rescue; the culprits are then the criminal networks of smugglers and traffickers, which need to be combatted. By contrast, a larger definition that includes the migrants who die inside Europe conveys very different political implications: the emphasis is then put on the way governments (mis)treat migrants and on the structural anti-migrant violence that pervades not only border control, but other aspects of immigration policy (like readmissions or expulsions).

It is in this highly sensitive political debate that as 2013 another actor has stepped in. The tragic October 2013 shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa triggered a public outrage, and increased a shift towards the “humanitarian border”: the framing of border control operations as acts of saving, thereby blurring humanitarian and security logics. It is in this context that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) launched the Missing Migrants Project, an initiative that provides data on migrants’ deaths throughout the world and has become the most visible and trusted source of data, for researchers and medias in particular.

At first sight, IOM imitates earlier initiatives by NGOs: it provides a list of casualties, along with maps that localize the places where these deaths occur. This makes clear how CSOs have set up a standard that is now inspiring other actors. But as an intergovernmental organization, IOM is much more prudent: it never establishes a causality between European policies and migrant deaths, but rather aims at developing a neutral (or ‘technical’) expertise through better knowledge. IOM wishes to help states by providing them with accurate information – but without interfering in the ways they will use this data and elaborate policies.

This project may seem at odds with IOM’s other activities. This organization is indeed active in the reinforcement of border controls throughout the world, including in the Euro-Mediterranean region. For example, it trains border guards in less developed countries, while also facilitating the expulsion and readmission of undocumented migrants through the so-called “voluntary return” programs: these are precisely the kind of activities that incite migrants to take deadly risks.

IOM thus exemplifies the confusion between control and humanitarian protection that characterizes contemporary politics of migration. It borrows from civil society repertoires, but does so in a way that depoliticizes their activities. While CSOs counted deaths to make states accountable, IOM rather sees this activity as a technical task with little or no political signification in itself. Yet, it is precisely because migrant deaths have become more and more politically visible that the IOM has felt the need to step into this activity. In the process however, IOM has increasingly side-lined the critical statistical practice of CSOs and contributed to neutralize the political signification of these statistics.

While we thus see a process of appropriation and neutralization at work through IOM’s counting of migrants’ deaths, reverse appropriation is also possible. If it is the relation between counting and accountability that has been undermined by IOM’s intervention, CSOs and critical researchers such as Forensic Oceanography are also able to appropriate this data and embed it within their own critical analysis of the lethal effects of the EU’s migration policies.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Heller, C. and Pécoud, A. (2020). The Politics of Counting Migrants’ Deaths in the Mediterranean. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/10/politics-counting [date]

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