Lethal choices
The rising death toll of mixed migration

The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2018 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

All human beings have the right to life regardless of their national origin or legal status, according to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The 2014 UN Human Rights Council resolution on human rights of migrants states humans are entitled to the right to life “wherever the person is and regardless of his or her immigration status”, and the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which was adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly in September 2016, vows to “fully protect the human rights of all refugees and migrants,” and declares, “We are determined to save lives.”

Despite these declarations and resolutions, it is estimated that at least 60,000 refugees and migrants have died during their journey from country to country since the start of this century. Nearly 26,000 of these deaths happened since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which has recorded 2,756 migrant deaths in 2018, as of the 3rd of October.

On the migration routes to Europe, which have been the most lethal worldwide, the mortality rate (number of deaths relative to number of people on a certain route) has more than doubled in 2018 compared to the previous year. Along the border between Mexico and the United States, another hot spot for migrant fatalities, the combined number of deaths in 2017 and 2016 was nearly double the total deaths in 2015 and 2014. This article briefly explores the contemporary collective thinking and action — or lack of action — around refugee and migrant fatalities, in particular of those who join irregular mixed migration flows, which is where the vast majority of deaths occur.

Shedders of light

People dying during migration journeys is not a new phenomenon, but these deaths became much more visible to governments and to the public since civil society organizations started researching them. In 1993, the European non-profit network United for Intercultural Action began to publish an annual List of Deaths, recording the names, origins and causes of death of refugee and migrant casualties associated with European migration policies. Similarly, the Australian Border Deaths Database maintains a record of all known deaths associated with Australia’s borders since January 2000, and Migrant Death Mapping, created by Humane Borders, another non-profit organisation, tracks where each migrant body was found along the United States-Mexico border, the name and gender of the deceased, and the cause of death.

In 2013, IOM launched the Missing Migrants Project (MMP), the first global database that counts all migrants and refugees worldwide who died during their migration journey. MMP and all other systems measuring migrant fatalities are always based on partial data: these systems have intrinsic limitations because such deaths often occur in remote areas or at sea, and because people in the process of irregular migration may fear reporting deaths to authorities. Nevertheless, by gathering whatever information is available and presenting it in an individualised way — placing emphasis on each person — these databases have contributed fact-based evidence to an issue that is currently highly politicised, and have served as a reminder of a disturbing reality that is too easily dismissed.

Mapping deadliest journeys

Another key source for understanding how such deaths happen is the Mixed Migration Monitoring Mechanism Initiative (4Mi), which conducts structured interviews with migrants and refugees along various mixed migration routes globally. Through these in-depth interviews relying on witness testimonies 4Mi has been able to map out the most lethal locations along the migration routes. The existence of sources like 4Mi, MMP, and others is necessary particularly because most governments do not collect, correctly categorise or publish numbers on deaths of refugees and migrants within or near to their territory.

The UN has urged states to start monitoring and recording all allegations of suspicious deaths or disappearances along migration routes, and to ensure that family members of victims are encouraged to report about such events to authorities. In 2017 IOM’s then director general William Lacy Swing stressed that good data are essential for the efforts to make migration safer: “Improving information on who these missing migrants are, where they come from, and above all, when they are most at risk, is crucial to building a holistic response to reduce the number of migrant deaths.”

Smugglers most to blame

While the existing databases have been providing figures and insight on migrant fatalities, in recent years there has also been an increase in academic migration research that has contributed to public understanding of why migrant fatalities happen and who is responsible. At one level, the topography of types of deaths shows that refugees and migrants die due to many different causes along their journey, but identifies those primarily responsible for the abuse, negligence, and deliberate violence that leads to death as those they entrust with their journey — the smugglers. Some also meet death at the hands of state officials, criminal gangs, local communities and even other migrants.

Can policies kill?

At another level, causation theories look at the policy environment that leads to mixed migration and the use of irregular pathways with smugglers in the first place. A dominant line of analysis in recently years, therefore, has sought to show how government policy is closely associated with border deaths:

“Border control policies can be linked to deaths structurally, where they limit the choices of illegalized travellers in ways that increase risks; directly, where the immediate actions of government agencies or other individuals bring about the deaths of illegalized travellers; and indirectly, where individuals take their own lives because of the intolerable circumstances they face. Although the causal links between policy and avoidable death may be more readily visible in relation to deaths occurring directly at the hands of others, the indirect and structural violence of border control policies accounts for many more deaths amongst individuals denied the opportunity to make safe and legal border crossings. In effect, border control policies are the invisible actors behind these deaths.” [1]

These indirect and structural links have been most evident in the Europe/Middle East/North Africa regions. Various papers have highlighted how governmental and intergovernmental policies have led migration routes to the European Union to become the deadliest routes worldwide. In research that examined the relationship between EU policy and deaths along the EU’s borders through an exhaustive review of academic literature, half of the works reviewed “tie EU border deaths to policies that determine and enforce the accessibility of safe international travel.”[2] Along the border between Greece and Turkey between 2000 and 2014, for example, the risk of death associated with irregular border crossing was progressively heightened by Greek and EU efforts to prevent illegal immigration.[3]

Safety through deterrence

On the other hand, there are those who argue the most effective way to minimize migrant deaths is to impose stricter border controls that discourage migrants from travelling on irregular migration routes. In 2015, Australia’s then prime minster Tony Abbot said the only way to stop deaths of migrants at sea “is in fact, to stop the boats.” The stated policy of the EU for preventing migrant fatalities in the Mediterranean has been to do whatever necessary to try reduce the number of people crossing sea towards Europe. As a result of this policy, the number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean has significantly decreased in the past two years and there has also been a decline in the total number of migrant fatalities at sea, though the mortality rate has doubled.

Search and smuggle?

Another controversial issue relates to the role of search and rescue (SAR) activities on the Central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy, where there have been more recorded deaths in 2018 than in all the rest of the migration routes worldwide combined. The Italian government has accused non-profits that operate SAR vessels in the sea between Italy and Libya of acting like a “taxi service” for unauthorized migrants, has taken steps to prevent these vessels from operating and has encouraged Libyan authorities to do the same. The mortality rate amongst refugees and migrants trying to cross the sea increased  after the Italian and Libyan authorities began restricting the activities of independent SAR vessels in the Mediterranean.

The correlation between national policies or authorities’ actions and refugee and migrant fatalities has been well documented in other parts of the world as well. Amongst people fleeing southern Cameroon in the second half of 2017, the mortality rate ranged between 15 percent and 20 percent, mainly because there were no safe cross-border passages into Nigeria, so the Cameroonians had to take unconventional routes: sailing through dangerous rivers or trekking through vast forests.[4] In the US–Mexico borderlands, where 412 migrant deaths were recorded in 2017 compared to 398 in 2016, the practices of US Border Patrol agents caused “wide-ranging trauma, injury, disappearance, and death for untold border crossers on a daily basis.”

Protection failures

A 2017 report by the UN special rapporteur[5] on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions focused on the mass causalities of refugees and migrants in the course of their flight, and was quite critical of nation states:

“The report presents evidence that suggests multiple failures on the part of States to respect and protect refugees’ and migrants’ right to life, such as unlawful killings, including through the excessive use of force and as a result of deterrence policies and practices, which increase the risk of death. Other violations to the right to life result from policies of extraterritoriality amounting to aiding and assisting in the arbitrary deprivation of life, and from the failure to prevent preventable and foreseeable deaths, as well as the limited number of investigations into these unlawful deaths. The report also presents best practices in search and rescue operations and for the dignified treatment of the dead, but points out that States do not implement them as they should, and fail to resource them adequately.”

Declaring war on smugglers

One way in which the UN has sought to address the problem of migrant fatalities is by combating the smugglers who facilitate the movement of people on irregular migration routes. The Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, which entered into force January 2004, aims at preventing human smuggling in order to protect the rights of smuggled migrants. Similarly, EU politicians and policy makers have repeatedly declared they are at war with the smugglers who are putting migrants’ lives at risk and have created an Action Plan against migrant smuggling.

Migrant fatalities indeed often occur while migrants are in the charge of smugglers, and are sometimes directly caused by smugglers, who become more of a threat the further the refugee or migrant is from their place of origin. However, migrant smugglers are a disparate group — ranging from helpful fixers to abusive murderers — and governments consistently use “vitriolic anti-smuggler rhetoric to misdirect us and distract us from the real intention of their policies.”[6]

Safety in legality

While governments’ answer to the growing phenomenon of migrant fatalities has been to focus on tackling smuggling by “disrupting their business model” and controlling borders better, scholars and experts have stressed the importance of opening more legal migration pathways, particularly with regards to accessing asylum.[7]

“Strengthening legal channels for refugees to reach safety would contribute to reducing the number of lives lost at sea,” was one of the main conclusions of a 2014 conference of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). A toolbox published following that conference explained that many people in need of protection resort to perilous irregular migration routes because opportunities to enter the EU lawfully are limited. UNHCR reported that in 2017 and 2018 the numbers of resettlement places made available by refugee-accepting countries fell to unprecedented levels. The FRA’s recommendation to make existing legal entry channels – such as resettlement, humanitarian visas and family reunification – more available to persons in need of protection was reaffirmed in 2017 by the European Commission.

Look at Latin America

The existence of legal migration channels in Latin America is one of the main reasons that movement of people across borders within this region has been much less deadly in comparison to the migration to Europe. In a 2016 Migration Policy Institute report, migration laws in Latin America were described as “heavily anchored on the respect of human rights, the principle of non-discrimination, and the understanding that crossing a border should not necessarily constitute a loss of rights.” In March 2018, when the number of people fleeing Venezuela spiked, UNHCR applauded countries in Latin America that introduced alternative legal stay arrangements for Venezuelans. However, in recent months, as the Venezuelan exodus has continued to grow, governments in the region have begun to restrict legal migration routes, leading some Venezuelans to travel on irregular migration routes that put their lives at risk.

Conflicting objectives

The fact the UN’s Global Compact for Migration’s list of objectives includes both “save lives” of migrants and “prevent, combat and eradicate trafficking in persons in the context of international migration” illustrates a potential contradiction that lies at the core of the world’s migrant fatalities crisis, according to some scholars. Norbert Cyrus notes that the most effective instrument to prevent life-threatening migration passages is the granting of free movement, and that the Global Compact for Migration perpetuates the right of states to exclude non-citizens, and by doing so puts them at risk.[8] He argues that enlarging the scope of free movement between countries will make it easier for people in need of protection to safely reach another country. Harald Bauder points out that states restrict migration to protect their own privileges — to “maintain many of the political relations reminiscent of a colonial and imperial global past” — and questions whether these restrictions can be morally justified considering the deadly consequences on migrants and refugees, many of whom come from countries formerly colonized by European powers.[9]

‘Control with empathy’

On the other hand, the rapid rate of migration to Europe has already breathed life into far-right political movements, and continued rapid immigration may foster additional support for far-right parties, which, if translated to into actual political power, as it has in Hungary, can lead to much more restrictive migration policies. Furthermore, there are experts who claim idealistic arguments for open borders are unfeasible and argue for a migration policy that “combines control with empathy, effectiveness with humanity, and reduced irregular movement with human rights,” because that is the only strategy that would be both electorally rewarding and considerate of the rights of refugees and migrants.

The conflict between a humanitarian, universalistic approach that prioritizes the right to life of all humans, and an approach in which states are allowed — and even encouraged — to restrict free movement of people across borders will not be resolved by the migration and refugee compacts. These non-binding global accords do represent a significant step forward towards the international community embracing the idea that no state can address migration alone. But they don’t offer any concrete solutions to the challenge of refugee and migrant deaths, and, at least for now, the journeys of those who choose these pathways to cross seas and land borders will continue to be life-threatening.


[1] Weber, L. (2012) ‘Border Deaths and Border Control Policies’ Border Crossing Observatory. Paper delivered at the Border Deaths Conference in Amsterdam, June 2018

[2] Last, T. (2018) ‘What is the relationship between EU border deaths and policy? Conflicting hypotheses of academics and policy-makers’ Paper delivered at the Border Deaths Conference in Amsterdam, June 2018

[3] Ulusoy, O., Baldwin-Edwards, M., & Last, T. (2018) ‘Border policies and migrant deaths at Turkish-Greek border’ Paper delivered at the Border Deaths Conference in Amsterdam, June 2018

[4] Nchotu, S. & Abuno, M. (2018) ‘Border Deaths and Migration Policies: State and Non-State Approaches in the Southern Cameroon Conflict’ Southern Cameroon Civil Defense Cabinet. Unpublished paper written for the Border Deaths Conference in Amsterdam, June 2018

[5] The interview with Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard can be found on page 64 of the Mixed Migration Review 2018.

[6] Horwood, C. (2018) ‘Angels or devils? – A more honest appraisal of the role of migrant smugglers’ Mixed Migration Centre. Unpublished paper written for the Border Deaths Conference in Amsterdam, June 2018.

[7] Palm, A. (2018) ‘Moving beyond control-oriented measures? Testing new models of legal asylum channels’ unpublished paper written for the Border Deaths Conference in Amsterdam, June 2018.

[8] Cyrus, N. (2018) ‘Bringing the Right to Freedom of Movement Down to Earth: Tentative Outline of a Research Program Promoting Free Movement’ Viadrina Center/Borders in Motion, European University Frankfurt

[9] Bauder, H. (2017) “Migration Borders Freedom’ Routledge Studies in Human Geography.