Families of Missing Migrants Forced to Go it Alone Searching for Relatives: New IOM Report

A family split: “My sons were my hope. One died during an earlier migration journey. The second went to search for him and he went missing as well. I am dying twice: I lost them and hope.”  IOM/Salam Shokor

Berlin – A report released today by the International Organization for Migration's (IOM) Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) calls on governments to urgently improve support for tens of thousands of missing migrant families who are often forced to rely on smugglers and other informal networks in tracing loved ones. 

The Centre's Missing Migrants Project compiled the report based on research with 76 families of missing migrants in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Spain and the United Kingdom.  Entitled “Families of Missing Migrants: Their Search for Answers and the Impacts of Loss – Lessons across four countries”, the report's accompanying policy briefing proposes 10 recommendations for authorities, international organizations and other actors to improve the response to cases of missing migrants and support for their families.  

“The study aims to amplify the voices of people with loved ones missing on migration journeys, and to better understand their challenges,” said GMDAC Director Frank Laczko. “Sharing these findings with the public is but a first step in improving the support mechanisms for migrants and the people they leave behind.” 

Despite human rights obligations under international law, some governments are ignoring the perspectives of missing migrant families and communities in policy debates about safe migration, resulting in persistent exclusion and marginalization, which has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The research showed that because of inadequate responses by state actors, families resorted to using informal networks, including other migrants, community-based associations and smugglers, in their searches. It also highlights that authorities often frame missing migrant cases as investigations into migrant smuggling operations: when families (or activists acting on their behalf) reported the disappearances of migrants to authorities, they were often pushed for information concerning the smugglers who organized their loved one’s journey, rather than about the disappearance itself. 

The families’ testimonies indicate devastating psychological anguish, as well as legal, financial and administrative impacts of the disappearance of their relatives. 

A farmer in Ethiopia told IOM his missing sons had been his hope for the future. "They used to help me till and farm the land and now I am getting older and weaker and can’t work," he said. "I rely on my relatives for agricultural labour but my farm is ploughed late and cannot produce much. My life is becoming hell. I cannot even pay the moneylender.  My wife is already bedridden.” 

The report reveals how inequalities shaped by factors such as gender, age, class, race, and migration status impede search efforts. IOM's recommendations include that States and relevant international actors establish specific roadmaps for managing cases of missing migrants and also implement safe and accessible ways for families to report their missing relatives. 

The report and policy briefing are part of the project “Assessment of the needs of families searching for relatives lost in the Central and Western Mediterranean”, funded by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. 

A revamped Missing Migrants Project website now includes the project’s country reports and final report, as well as other resources to learn more about the experiences of families of missing migrants. There is also information on relevant NGOs and other actors that may be helpful to those searching for missing loved ones. 


For more information, contact:  

In Berlin:  

Kate Dearden,, +49 30 27 877 832 

Marta Sánchez Dionis,, +49 30 278 778 43 

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