25th Feb 2024


Finding the remains of drowned migrants is a legal obligation

  • The International Committee for Missing Persons is working with families of some of those who disappeared when the boat capsized, to help identify victims (Photo: Hellenic Coast Guard)
Listen to article

As countries around the world observe International Day of the Disappeared on Wednesday (30 August), it is crucial that we focus on practical solutions to the global challenge of missing persons.

Practical solutions are based on legal frameworks — not good intentions on the one hand or populist soundbites on the other.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

National law and international instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, and the Convention of the Rights of the Child, to name a few, create state obligations towards families of the missing.

Importantly, this includes families of missing refugees and irregular migrants, as well as trafficked and illegally adopted children. States must fulfil these obligations.

It is often said that the scale of irregular migration confounds efforts to address the challenges that follow in its wake, but this is not true. In the last 25 years the capacity to locate and identify missing persons — including missing migrants — has been transformed. Technical innovations have enhanced the capacities of governments to fulfil their responsibilities.

Strategies that invoke violence to prevent migration — including migration from Latin America to the US and from Asia and Africa to the European Union — have gained political traction. Such strategies are morally regressive and, in practical terms, ineffective.

Human Rights Watch reported earlier this year on how funds allocated to border control by European governments have financed the systematic brutality meted out to migrants at the Libya-Tunisia border, and in the US, proposals to kill migrants, calculated to touch a populist chord, have wilted under scrutiny.

The arguments for respecting the legal framework and mitigating human tragedy are more compelling and more likely to deliver positive results. In the long term, effective action can be taken to mitigate instability and poverty in countries of origin; and in the short and medium term, coordinated action can be taken to tackle people smugglers and locate and identify their victims in countries of transit and destination.

This is a path away from violence and human rights abuse and towards upholding the rule of law — something that politicians right across the political spectrum should be willing to support.

Since 2018, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) has worked with the governments of Cyprus, Greece, Malta and Italy to establish a joint process through which each of these countries is informed about the resources that can be called upon across the region to locate and identify missing migrants.

The sinking of a migrant boat off southern Greece in June this year as a result of which hundreds of people are still missing is now the subject of criminal investigations — into the people smugglers who launched the boat and the Greek coast guard who did not (they say at the request of the migrants themselves) rescue the passengers.

The authorities must search for, locate and identify the victims, and in due course repatriate human remains for burial. This is not a popular political option, but it is a legal as well as a moral obligation — and the resources exist to help the authorities meet this obligation.

ICMP is working with families of some of those who disappeared when the boat capsized, to help identify victims. At the same time, on the other side of the Mediterranean, ICMP is working to establish a system under which migrants who have gone missing on the Libya-Tunisia border can be located and identified.

Faced with mass loss of life in circumstances involving irregular migration, authorities have often been confused about their obligations and hidebound by perceived political difficulties.

Yet, failure by governments to account for migrants who go missing is a fundamental and corrosive violation of domestic and international law. Through coordinated action, including pooling resources, and through a strategy based on upholding the rule of law, governments can meet their obligations in a way that is both effective and humane.

The rights of non-citizens are the same as the rights of citizens. When the rights of missing migrants and their families are abridged, the rights of all of us are abridged. On International Day of the Disappeared it is important to remember this.

Author bio

Knut Vollebaek is a former Norwegian foreign minister and chairman of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). Kathryne Bomberger is ICMP director-general.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

After two years of war, time to hit Putin's LNG exports

Two years of tragedies, with well over 100,000 Russian war crimes now registered, underscore the urgent need to stop international LNG investments in Russia that continue to fund Vladimir Putin's war chest.

Blackmailing the Global South on EU carbon border tax won't work

According to the European Commission, CBAM is supposed to prevent "carbon leakage". In other words, it seeks to prevent European industries relocating to jurisdictions with less stringent environmental policies, while also incentivising carbon pricing and industrial decarbonisation abroad.

Ukraine refugees want to return home — but how?

Fewer than one-in-ten Ukrainian refugees intend to settle permanently outside Ukraine, according to new research by the associate director of research and the director of gender and economic inclusion at the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development.

Latest News

  1. EU rewards Tusk's Poland on rule of law with €137bn
  2. UK-EU relations defrosting ahead of near-certain Labour win
  3. EU paid Russia €420-per-capita for fossil fuels since war began
  4. After two years of war, time to hit Putin's LNG exports
  5. Creating the conditions for just peace in Ukraine
  6. Energy and minerals disputes overshadow new EU-ACP pact
  7. Germany speeds up Georgia and Morocco asylum returns
  8. How Amazon lobbyists could be banned from EU Parliament

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us