Missing migrants, lost and dead: AP methodology

November 1, 2018

In this March 23, 2018 photo, an Argentine forensic anthropology team arrange burned fragments at a lab in Cuauhtemoc, Mexico. The fragments are among the remains of tens of thousands of people who have disappeared in Mexico's long and bloody drug war. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

The Associated Press set out to count the number of dead and missing migrants worldwide since 2014, the year that Europe’s deadly migration crisis prompted the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration to start its Missing Migrants project.

The IOM toll as of Oct. 1 was more than 28,500, and focused heavily on the Mediterranean. The AP came up with almost 28,300 more from all regions, for a total of at least 56,800.

Unlike the IOM, the AP included reports of missing loved ones to government agencies or independent organizations. Migrants disappear for a variety of reasons, but few are benign.

The AP also pulled together information from both formal and informal sources for a more comprehensive view. Many governments of origin cannot or will not keep records of the missing. Migration is expressly outlawed in some countries; even where it is legal, governments can be reluctant to acknowledge it, seeing it as an admission of failure.

In some places, aid groups such as the national Red Cross step in to fill the gap. In the United States, the Colibri Center for Human Rights accepts missing person reports from families of migrants. The center, along with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team in Latin America, works to match the reports with unidentified bodies found along the paths of migration.

There is always a risk that one family’s missing loved one is an unidentified body elsewhere, and could be double-counted. But the AP has avoided these cases where possible by taking a conservative approach. The AP focused especially on places where data is scarce and unlikely to be duplicated, including Latin America, Asia and Africa. For example, one of the main sources of new data, the Mixed Migration Centre’s 4Mi project, is based in large part on interviews of migrants within Africa long before they reach the shores of the Mediterranean.

In the case of Asia, organizations that take reports from families about missing and dead migrants in the Philippines and Indonesia compiled their data at AP’s request, as did an aid worker tracing Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar who disappeared in fleeing from mass killings last year. Other sources include forensic pathologists and government missing-person reports.

As with the IOM data, the AP tally includes deaths and disappearance of migrants in transport accidents, by illness, and through violence related to their irregular status once they have left their home countries when possible. If there is a question of possible duplication, we have discarded the entry.

We also discarded estimates in favor of precision. This means we have almost certainly undercounted deaths and disappearances. In the Americas, for example, some organizations estimate tens of thousands of migrant disappearances in recent years, but have been unable to provide tangible evidence of where and when.

Contributing to an undercount, bodies of migrants still 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 exactly where they were headed.

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