Due to COVID-19, more people are dying away from home and away from their families.
Often, bereaved families have no opportunity to mourn their loved ones. However, their experiences have been paid meagre attention. With the support of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (IOM GMDAC) is carrying out qualitative research with families of missing migrants to better understand how people cope with the uncertainty and tragedy of loss and death, and what governments and other actors can do to better support them. The geographic focus of the research is the Western and Central Mediterranean routes to Europe and the findings will be published in the last quarter of 2020.
COVID-19 and the mobility restrictions and border controls passed to prevent its spread affect everyone. Despite the constraints, migrants continue to embark on clandestine journeys, fleeing violence and poverty and seeking to improve their lives. COVID-19 responses have increased the precarity of these journeys, pushing people into more perilous and deadly situations where humanitarian support and rescue may be unavailable. Families and communities of origin are also affected, including how they search for the missing and grieve for those who have died away from home.
Over the past few months, devastating examples of the harrowing journeys people embark on due to the reduction in safe and legal pathways to migration have kept making headlines: 64 migrants dying in the back of a lorry in Mozambique on 24 March and a boat carrying at least 43 people shipwrecked on its way to the Canary Islands on 3 April.
Rohingya refugees rescued on 15 April by the Bangladeshi Coast Guard after a two month ordeal aboard a wooden fishing trawler reported that up to three people were dying each day due to dehydration, starvation and violence during which no country would allow them to disembark. At least 12 men died in the Central Mediterranean over the Easter weekend when their boat was returned to Libya allegedly with the assistance of the Maltese authorities.
The restrictions imposed in many countries and the focus on the COVID-19 response have also limited the ability to collect and report information on migrant deaths and disappearances. The number of reported deaths on migration journeys since the beginning of the pandemic is a minimum estimate and we know that deaths and disappearances continue in remote and dangerous areas and the probability of victims or survivors being identified and accounted for is slim.
Each person unidentified or whose remains are not recovered is leaving behind loved ones without answers.
When families stop hearing from their loved ones, they begin a painful search for information that can take years or a lifetime.
The circumstances have not stopped families’ demands for information on their missing mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children. Yet fieldwork in the context of this project shows that the response measures and the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 will have a detrimental impact on their mental, social and physical well-being, and on their ability to search for their missing loved ones. Restrictions on mobility are making it harder for people to access or receive information concerning the whereabouts of their friends and relatives.
Even under normal circumstances families searching for information face many obstacles. Preliminary findings from our research in the UK show that the participants’ undocumented status coupled with difficult socioeconomic conditions are key challenges in trying to find missing loved ones. Many family members who participated in the research in the UK hold challenging and underpaid jobs which have been adversely impacted by lockdown measures. These precarious financial circumstances and difficulties finding secure accommodation further undermine their ability to trace missing relatives.
Similarly in Spain, strict lockdown measures have severely affected the ability of migrants working in greenhouses and agricultural fields to search for loved ones. Fieldwork conducted by the research team in Almería, Southern Spain, showed that COVID-19 restrictions have led to a reduction and suspension of harvesting activities and the loss of income. Many migrants are currently relying on the assistance of local NGOs to access basic supplies and food. While official restrictions in Spain have by now been lifted, many migrant families are still confined to their homes — in the case of Almería, often makeshift settlements on the periphery.
We know from past research in the Mediterranean migration context that it is rare for families to be present during the burials of relatives who died in the course of their migration journeys. The already uncommon process of repatriating the remains of migrants during this period is further complicated by sanitary restrictions concerning the propagation of the virus and vastly restricted mobility.
For example, the bodies of 26 Bangladeshi and four Sub-Saharan African migrants massacred in the Libyan city of Mezdah in late May were buried in Libya, despite the desperate requests from families who were hoping for the remains to be returned to their homelands. As other Missing Migrant Project reports and publications have shown, these restrictions are extremely distressing for families, and exacerbate their grief.
Another example involved the relatives of migrants who went missing in the 3 April shipwreck between Morocco and the Canary Islands, who told Le Monde that the impossibility to respect burial and mourning traditions have added even more pain to the loss of their loved ones. “My mother mourned him as if his body was next to us, she is convinced of his death,” shared the brother of Alseny Kouta, a young Guinean who went missing during the shipwreck.
“I can’t say if he’s dead or not, if he was buried somewhere or not. And we have no one to turn to.”
Despite the lack of certainty about his fate, Alseny’s family wanted to organize a ceremony “so that his soul can rest in peace if he is dead or that God can take care of him if he is still alive”, his brother said.
However, the prohibition on gatherings of more than twenty people due to the COVID-19 restrictions did not allow for such a ceremony to take place. In the end, the ceremony was held in private. “It’s odd to say goodbye to someone like that.” Ibrahima Sylla, Alseny’s brother, told Le Monde.
What has been made painfully clear these last months are the collective and intimate experiences with loss that the pandemic has brought about as it moves across the globe. Faced with an uncertain future, the disruption of everyday life and the loss of loved ones in the time of physical distancing, people around the world are experiencing reactions frequently associated with ambiguous loss and grief.
For families of missing migrants, these feelings of profound grief and loss are not new, but they have been amplified by the increased isolation and precarity brought by the pandemic.
 For example, according to IOM Zimbabwe, human traffickers are abandoning migrants in the country, which is a transit country for people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Malawi and countries in the Horn of Africa, because they are unable to circumvent the South Africa’s border controls that have been tightened because of COVID-19.
This story was written by Marta Sánchez Dionis and Kate Dearden from IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre with Gabriella Sanchez, Research Fellow at the European University Institute’s Migration Policy Centre.