The hid­den toll of lost mi­grants

News group’s global tally doc­u­ments over 56,800 dead or miss­ing since ’14

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Nation & World - By Lori Hin­nant and Bram Janssen As­so­ci­ated Press

JO­HAN­NES­BURG —As mi­gra­tion rises world­wide, so has its toll: The tens of thou­sands of peo­ple who die or sim­ply dis­ap­pear dur­ing their jour­neys. Barely counted in life, these mi­grants rarely reg­is­ter in death — al­most as if they never lived at all.

A grow­ing num­ber of mi­grants have drowned, died in deserts or fallen prey to traf­fick­ers, leav­ing their fam­i­lies to won­der what hap­pened to them. At the same time, anony­mous bod­ies are fill­ing ceme­ter­ies in South Africa’s Gaut­eng prov­ince, or in the coastal Tu­nisian town of Zarzis. Sim­i­lar ceme­ter­ies dot Italy, Greece and Libya.

An As­so­ci­ated Press tally has doc­u­mented more than

56,800 mi­grants dead or miss­ing world­wide since

2014 — al­most dou­ble the num­ber found in the world’s only of­fi­cial at­tempt to try to count them, by the U.N.’s In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion. The IOM toll as of Oct. 1 was more than 28,500. The AP came up with al­most 28,300 ad­di­tional dead or miss­ing mi­grants by com­pil­ing in­for­ma­tion from other in­ter­na­tional groups, foren­sic records, miss­ing per­sons re­ports, death records and ex­am­in­ing data from thou­sands of in­ter­views with mi­grants.

The AP’s tally is also cer­tainly an un­der­count. Bod­ies lie undis­cov­ered in desert sands or at the bot­tom of the sea. And fam­i­lies don’t al­ways re­port loved ones as miss­ing be­cause they mi­grated il­le­gally, or be­cause they left home with­out say­ing where they were headed.

In­stead, fam­i­lies are caught be­tween hope and mourn­ing, like that of Safi al-Bahri.

Her son, Ma­jdi Barhoumi, left their home­town of Ras Jebel, Tu­nisia, on May 7, 2011 for Europe in a small boat with a dozen other mi­grants. The boat sank and Barhoumi hasn’t been heard from since. In a sign of faith that he is alive, his mother and father built an an­i­mal pen with a brood of hens, a few cows and a dog to stand watch un­til he re­turns.

“I just wait for him. I al­ways imag­ine him be­hind me, at home, in the mar­ket, ev­ery­where,” al-Bahri said.

The of­fi­cial U.N. toll ex­ten­sively doc­u­ments deaths in the Mediter­ranean and Europe, but even there cases fall through the cracks. The po­lit­i­cal tide is turn­ing against mi­grants in Europe just as in the United States, where the gov­ern­ment is crack­ing down heav­ily on car­a­vans of Cen­tral Amer­i­cans try­ing to get in. One re­sult is that money is dry­ing up for projects to track mi­gra­tion and its costs.

For ex­am­ple, when more than 800 peo­ple died in an April 2015 ship­wreck off the coast of Italy, Europe’s dead­li­est mi­grant sea dis­as­ter, Ital­ian in­ves­ti­ga­tors pledged to iden­tify them and find their fam­i­lies. More than three years later, un­der a new pop­ulist gov­ern­ment, fund­ing for this work has been cut off.

Be­yond Europe, in­for­ma­tion is even more scarce. Even in the U.S., where mi­gra­tion has turned into a hot-but­ton is­sue, there is no rou­tine ef­fort to fig­ure out where mi­grants may dis­ap­pear or die, nor a pol­icy on iden­ti­fy­ing bod­ies and no­ti­fy­ing fam­i­lies. And lit­tle is known about the toll in South Amer­ica, where the Venezue­lan mi­gra­tion is among the world’s big­gest to­day, and in Asia , the top re­gion for num­bers of mi­grants.

The re­sult is that gov­ern­ments vastly un­der­es­ti­mate the true toll of mi­gra­tion.

“No mat­ter where you stand on the whole mi­gra­tion man­age­ment de­bate these are still hu­man be­ings on the move,” said Bram Frouws, the head of the Mixed Mi­gra­tion Cen­tre, which has done sur­veys of more than 20,000 mi­grants in its 4Mi project since 2014.

The miss­ing in­clude chil­dren. Some 2,773 chil­dren have been re­ported to the Red Cross as miss­ing en Mor­tu­ary work­ers carry the cof­fin of an uniden­ti­fied man near Jo­han­nes­burg. Mi­grant bod­ies are fill­ing ceme­ter­ies.

route to Europe, and 2,097 adults re­ported miss­ing by chil­dren.

Al­mass and his brother, both mi­grants from Khost, Afghanistan, are not on the list. He was just 14 when his wid­owed mother re­luc­tantly sent him and his 11-year-old brother from their home into the un­known. The pay­ment for their trip was sup­posed to get them away from the Tal­iban and all the way to Ger­many via a chain of smug­glers.

But when the Ira­nian bor­der po­lice fired on their group, Al­mass lost hold of his brother’s hand and went

un­con­scious as he tum­bled down a ravine. He never saw his brother again. When he next spoke to his mother, he couldn’t bring him­self to tell her; in­stead, he lied that his brother couldn’t come to the phone.

The fam­ily phone num­ber in Afghanistan no longer works, their vil­lage is over­run with Tal­iban, and he has no idea how to find them.

“I don’t know now where they are,” he said, his face an­guished as he sat on a sun-dap­pled bench in ru­ral France. “They also don’t know where I am.”

BRAM JANSSEN/AP

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