When Zaid Aslan, a 35-year-old Syrian business analyst, got onto a small rubber dinghy headed to Greece from Turkey, it didn’t occur to him that the distance separating him from his wife and two children would be measured in years, not kilometres.
A missed WhatsApp voice call was the last thing his family heard from him on the night of his disappearance.
“We just need to know what happened to him,” Aslan’s wife, Diana Alessa told Humber News. “We need to know if he is alive or dead. We need to know if he is in jail.”
Aslan went missing while trying to make his way to Greece by a small boat on New Year’s Day 2020. The dream was to reach the Netherlands, where he was supposed to reunite with his wife and two children, who were able to enter the country legally as they hold Russian passports.
His disappearance is among the more than 48,000 migrants who have gone missing since 2014, with 25,000 recorded lost trying to cross the Mediterranean, according to the Missing Migrants Project, an initiative implemented by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to track the deaths and disappearances of migrants who have gone missing around the world.
The recorded numbers of migrants’ deaths and disappearances do not reflect the actual numbers as many cases go unrecorded, said Angelo Cotroneo, global adviser of the International Committee of the Red Cross to the International Migration Review Forum.
“Real numbers are likely much higher, as many cases go unrecorded,” Cotroneo told the International Migration Review Forum last month. “This also does not include the thousands of migrants who are missing because they cannot communicate with their families.”
Alessa said her husband told his friend the boat would leave Turkey on Jan. 1 and that he shouldn’t pay the agreed amount to the smugglers until they ensured that he arrived in Greece.
“I did not know that his journey was on that night. He tried to call me, but I was sleeping,” she said. “A missed call was the last thing we heard from him since then.”
Alessa said the boat that carried her husband capsized off the coast of Turkey that night and that 11 persons were found dead, while the fate of four others, including her husband, remains unknown.
“It is like he vanished. We tried to reach out to the smugglers to get any information, but they pretended that they did not know him,” she said.
The increasing number of missing migrants is closely related to the restrictive migration and mobility policies tailored to prevent them from reaching territories, especially in Europe, North America, and Australia., said Scott Watson, associate professor and chair of the department of political science at the University of Victoria.
“The number of missing migrants is a result of border enforcement policies,” Watson said. “The international community is not at all that serious about addressing this problem.”
He said the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1990, should be given more attention when dealing with the crisis of missing migrants.
“We need to have a rights-based approach to migration rather than the current restriction-based approach where states have the power to restrict mobility as much as possible,” Watson said.
He said the International Organization for Migration only collects data on missing migrants and that no department follows up.
“The international community should empower the IOM to sort of establish the next step, which is actually to implement an investigative branch that can figure out what happened to these people who are missing,” Watson told Humber News.
The Missing Migrant Project is the only global database on migrants’ disappearances worldwide where we document cases of missing migrants and make them public by publishing them on our website, said Andrea García Borja, data analyst at Missing Migrants Project.
“There are a lot of efforts from civil society organizations from different regions of the world, but the Missing Migrant Project is the only global database on the issue,” Borja said.
Watson said most states do not have a political will to ensure the safety of migrants and improve response to human smuggling and the main reasons why migrants disappear.
“Most states quite frankly don’t care,” he said. “We need home states to be much more active and to press transit and destination countries to be much more involved in this.”
Alessa said she left no stone unturned in pursuing any information that might lead her to the fate of her husband. But the only information she got was that her husband might be detained by the Turkish police.
“After three days of his disappearance, we were able to get in touch with a Turkish girl who had connections with someone in the Turkish parliament,” she said. “We have been told that the Turkish police detained Zaid in Fethiye city.”
Alessa said they have been living with uncertainty during the past two years as they could not get any confirmation about the fate of her husband.
“We are still looking for answers, and we won’t stop looking until we know what happened to him,” she said.
She said the Netherlands refused to give her and her two children asylum status and protection as they hold dual citizenship and that they were forced to leave for Germany.
“They decided to deport us back to Syria,” she said. “We lived for more than a year in constant fear of being deported before we were able to arrive in Germany and apply for asylum.”
Alessa said she reached out to the German Red Cross on her arrival in Germany to file a missing person report and she hasn’t heard back from them since then.
“I have been trying to follow up with the Red Cross, but they stopped replying to my emails,” she said. “It just feels like we are being ignored.”
Addressing the crisis of missing migrants requires a transnational approach that brings countries and other concerned actors along mandatory routes together, said Florian von König, deputy head of the Missing Persons Project at the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“The crisis of missing migrants suffers from the politicization of migration,” König said. “It is also often being normalized as people assume that is normal for hundreds and thousands of migrants to die, and obviously it is not.”
He said shedding more light on the crisis of missing migrants would make it more visible and thus mobilize a proper response.
“People need to see and acknowledge that this is happening, and migrants are dying and going missing at staggering numbers,” König said.
He said the reported cases of missing migrants do not reflect the accurate picture as many migrants go missing or end up dead in remote locations without being registered or documented.
“The current numbers are just the tip of an iceberg. The real numbers are much higher as many cases are not recorded,” König said.
He said that looking at the missing migrant crisis from a narrow perspective where countries either open their borders or close them won’t prevent more migrants from going missing.
“The black and white dichotomy that tells either we open up borders to everyone, or we close our borders is a gross oversimplification,” König said. “There are always ways to control borders that respect states’ international legal obligations.”
Alessa said she contacted the International Commission on Missing Persons and that they took DNA samples from the children to try to match them up with their database of dead persons and the other databases available from hospitals and cemeteries.
“The International Commission on Missing Persons told us they are having difficulty accessing the databases in Turkey as the authorities there are not collaborating with them,” she said.
According to the International Commission on Missing Persons, more than 20.000 missing persons have been identified worldwide using DNA technology.
But Andreas Kleiser, director for policy and cooperation at the International Commission on Missing Persons, said the international community is not doing enough to address the crisis of missing migrants in terms of providing a structured and systematic approach to dealing with the families of missing migrants,
“The international community is clearly deficient,” Kleiser said. “Missing migrants is certainly an area where the international community is not doing enough.”
He said there are gaps in the migration policies and practices being implemented to document the disappearance of missing migrants as authorities collect information on missing migrants within criminal datasets that they don’t give access to, making the identification process even harder.
“The police usually take DNA samples and GPS coordinates of unidentified migrants into criminal datasets. On the other hand, we have families reporting people missing,” Kleiser said. “We have two separate datasets, and we don’t succeed in putting these two datasets together.”
He said missing migrants and refugees worldwide are not treated equally and that many geographical and racial factors play a role in shaping migration policies and determining the international response to the missing migrants’ crisis.
“I’m a European citizen. If my daughter went missing and I went to the police, we could be sure that the police would investigate,” Kleiser said. “I also know sufficient reports of a Somali woman who went to the police in Europe and was sent to the Red Cross. There are different standards of investigative intensity.”
He said the families of missing migrants are not getting enough support and that they deserve to have answers and should not be subject to any kind of physical or emotional abuse.
“They need a reliable, just, and fair state response. When you go to the police and report your missing family member, you are not exposed to threats, violence, and possibly abuse,” Kleiser said.
He said the investigation process of the unidentified missing migrants should be standardized and that authorities in the home and transit states should abide by those investigation standards.
“The investigation is all the families have,” Kleiser said.
Alessa said they have every right to know if her husband is detained in Turkey so that they could hire an attorney for him.
“We have been struggling for two years now to learn anything about the fate of Zaid. It’s inhumane to hide the truth from us. We want to know if he is in jail. He is not a criminal,” she said.
König said it is vital to urge countries to take part in resolving missing migrants’ cases by either finding them or identifying their bodies.
“There are many examples where migrants might be alive in detention facilities. They might be unaccompanied minors who went missing in custody systems. They might be dead, which is a question of identifying their bodies,” he said.
He said that providing families of missing migrants with the help and support they need is insufficiently acknowledged and poorly addressed by the different concerned parties.
“These families are depending on a stigmatized context,” König said. “Women might find it impossible even to have guardianship of their children. They might be unable to control properties if the person is missing.”
The United Nations Children’s Fund reported that unaccompanied minors fleeing to Europe are subject to abuse, exploitation, and death.
The IOM has recorded more than 10,000 children who arrived in Europe either unaccompanied or separated in 2020.
Borja said the Missing Migrants Project conducted a series of four studies in Zimbabwe, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Ethiopia, exploring the different experiences and challenges that families go through as they search for their missing relatives and the amount of support they receive from states.
“We discovered that there are no mechanisms to support the search for missing migrants,” she said. “The families face significant challenges in finding their loved ones, and they have to navigate complex systems.”
Countries signed on to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Indicator (SDG) to keep track of the number of migrant deaths and disappearances. They also adopted the Global Compact for Migration, which has 23 objectives to manage migration, in particular, Objective 8, which calls for international cooperation to “save lives and prevent migrant deaths and injuries through individual or joint search and rescue operations.”
Borja, however, said the initiatives are being neglected by the concerned countries.
“Unfortunately, no country in the world reports on the SDG indicator, and very few countries are doing anything to address the Objective 8 of the Global Compact for Migration,” she said.
The adoption of Objective 8 of the Global Compact for Migration by 152 states in 2018 aimed to accelerate the international efforts to save migrants from going missing. However, little has been done globally to address the crisis of missing migrants since then, Cotroneo said.
“Objective 8 is one commitment in the Global Compact where little progress has been made, as last year’s regional reviews showed and as the Secretary-General has repeatedly highlighted,” he said.
Borja said people do not choose to endanger their lives and the lives of their loved ones, but they are forced to take dangerous routes as they do not have any other choice.
“The way to end migrant’s deaths is to provide more safe routes for migration,” she said. “There are also other things that states can do, for example, increase and prioritize search and rescue not only in maritime routes but also in land routes through the Sahara.”
According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 11.000 migrants have been recorded dead in the Sahara since 2014.
Alessa said the traumatic disappearance of her husband left a big hole in her kids’ lives, especially her 10-year-old son Zain Aslan, who was able to connect the dots regardless of her efforts to keep the father’s disappearance from him.
“Zain suffers from anxiety and behaviour disorder. He becomes more violent and angry. He finds difficulty sleeping due to the recurring nightmares,” she said. “When I am late for home, he thinks something bad happened, and he gets hysterical.”
Alessa said she has a gut feeling her husband is still alive and that they will reunite again as they did nothing wrong. All they wanted for themselves and their children was to live a better life.
“I have tons of hope. I am confident that he is alive,” she said. “We will never stop waiting for Zaid to come back.”