Where is Missing Migrants Project data from?

Missing Migrants Project data are compiled from a variety of sources on a daily basis. Sources vary depending on the region and broadly include data from national authorities, such as Coast Guards and Medical Examiners; media reports; NGOs; and interviews with survivors of shipwrecks. In the Mediterranean region, data are relayed from relevant national authorities to IOM field missions, who then share it with the Missing Migrants Project team. Data are also obtained through direct reporting by IOM and other organizations that receive survivors at landing points in Italy and Greece. In other cases, media reports are used. IOM and UNHCR also regularly coordinate on such data to ensure consistency. Data on the U.S./Mexico border are compiled based on data from U.S. county medical examiners and sheriff’s offices, as well as media reports for deaths occurring on the Mexico side of the border. Estimates within Mexico and Central America are based primarily on media and year-end government reports. Data on the Bay of Bengal are drawn from reports by UNHCR and NGOs. In the Horn of Africa, data are obtained from media and NGOs. Data for other regions is drawn from a combination of sources, including media and grassroots organizations. In all regions, Missing Migrants Projectdata represents minimum estimates and are potentially lower than in actuality.


Who is included in Missing Migrants Project data?

IOM defines a migrant as any person who is moving or has moved across an international border or within a State away from his/her habitual place of residence, regardless of

(1) the person’s legal status;
(2) whether the movement is voluntary or involuntary;
(3) what the causes for the movement are; or
(4) what the length of the stay is.[1]

Missing Migrants Project counts migrants who have died or gone missing at the external borders of states, or in the process of migration towards an international destination. The count excludes deaths that occur in immigration detention facilities, during deportation, or after forced return to a migrant’s homeland, as well as deaths more loosely connected with migrants’ irregular status, such as those resulting from labour exploitation. Migrants who die or go missing after they are established in a new home are also not included in the data, so deaths in refugee camps or housing are excluded. This approach is chosen because deaths that occur at physical borders and while en route represent a more clearly definable category, and inform what migration routes are most dangerous. Data and knowledge of the risks and vulnerabilities faced by migrants in destination countries, including death, should not be neglected, rather tracked as a distinct category.


How complete is the data on dead and missing migrants?

Data on fatalities during the migration process are challenging to collect for a number of reasons, most stemming from the irregular nature of migratory journeys on which deaths tend to occur. For one, deaths often occur in remote areas on routes chosen with the explicit aim of evading detection. Countless bodies are never found, and rarely do these deaths come to the attention of authorities or the media. Furthermore, when deaths occur at sea, frequently not all bodies are recovered - sometimes with hundreds missing from one shipwreck - and the precise number of missing is often unknown. In 2015, over 50 per cent of deaths recorded by the Missing Migrants Project refer to migrants who are presumed dead and whose bodies have not been found, mainly at sea.

Data are also challenging to collect as reporting on deaths is poor, and the data that does exist are highly scattered. Few official sources are collecting data systematically. Many counts of death rely on media as a source. Coverage can be spotty and incomplete. In addition, the involvement of criminal actors in incidents means there may be fear among survivors to report deaths and some deaths may be actively covered-up. The irregular immigration status of many migrants, and at times their families as well, also impedes reporting of missing persons or deaths.

The varying quality and comprehensiveness of data by region in attempting to estimate deaths globally may exaggerate the share of deaths that occur in some regions, while under-representing the share occurring in others.


What can be understood through this data?

The available data can give an indication of changing conditions and trends related to migration routes and the people travelling on them, which can be relevant for policy making and protection plans. Data can be useful to determine the relative risks of irregular migration routes. For example, Missing Migrants Project data show that despite the increase in migrant flows through the eastern Mediterranean in 2015, the central Mediterranean remained the more deadly route. In 2015, nearly two people died out of every 100 travellers (1.85%) crossing the Central route, as opposed to one out of every 1,000 that crossed from Turkey to Greece (0.095%). From the data, we can also get a sense of whether groups like women and children face additional vulnerabilities on migration routes.

However, it is important to note that because of the challenges in data collection for the missing and dead, basic demographic information on the deceased is rarely known. Often migrants in mixed migration flows do not carry appropriate identification. When bodies are found it may not be possible to identify them or to determine basic demographic information. In the data compiled by Missing Migrants Project, sex of the deceased is unknown in over 80% of cases. Region of origin has been determined for the majority of the deceased. Even this information is at times extrapolated based on available information – for instance if all survivors of a shipwreck are of one origin it was assumed those missing also came from the same region.

The Missing Migrants Project dataset includes coordinates for where incidents of death took place, which indicates where the risks to migrants may be highest. However, it should be noted that all coordinates are estimates.


Why collect data on missing and dead migrants?

By counting lives lost during migration, even if the result is only an informed estimate, we at least acknowledge the fact of these deaths. What before was vague and ill-defined is now a quantified tragedy that must be addressed. Politically, the availability of official data is important. The lack of political commitment at national and international levels to record and account for migrant deaths reflects and contributes to a lack of concern more broadly for the safety and well-being of migrants, including asylum-seekers. Further, it drives public apathy, ignorance, and the dehumanization of these groups.

Data are crucial to better understand the profiles of those who are most at risk and to tailor policies to better assist migrants and prevent loss of life. Ultimately, improved data should contribute to efforts to better understand the causes, both direct and indirect, of fatalities and their potential links to broader migration control policies and practices.

Counting and recording the dead can also be an initial step to encourage improved systems of identification of those who die. Identifying the dead is a moral imperative that respects and acknowledges those who have died. This process can also provide a some sense of closure for families who may otherwise be left without ever knowing the fate of missing loved ones.

What are the issues surrounding the identification and tracing of the dead and missing?

As mentioned above, the challenge remains to count the numbers of dead and also identify those counted. Globally, the majority of those who die during migration remain unidentified. Even in cases in which a body is found identification rates are low. Families may search for years or a lifetime to find conclusive news of their loved one. In the meantime, they may face psychological, practical, financial, and legal problems.

Ultimately Missing Migrants Project would like to see that every unidentified body, for which it is possible to recover, is adequately “managed”, analysed and tracked to ensure proper documentation, traceability and dignity. Common forensic protocols and standards should be agreed upon, and used within and between States. Furthermore, data relating to the dead and missing should be held in searchable and open databases at local, national and international levels to facilitate identification.

For more in-depth analysis and discussion of the numbers of missing and dead migrants around the world, and the challenges involved in identification and tracing, read our two reports on the issue, Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost during Migration (2014) and Fatal Journeys Volume 2, Identification and Tracing of Dead and Missing Migrants

[1] IOM. (2016). Key Migration Terms. Available from

Regions in focus



Missing Migrants Project by International Organization for Migration (IOM) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. This means that Missing Migrants Project website content is free to share and adapt, as long as the appropriate attribution is given. Missing Migrants Project is made possible by funding by UK Aid from the Government of the United Kingdom; however, the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the Government of the United Kingdom’s official policies.