Migrant deaths and the impact on those left behind

By Samuel Okyere.

On 28 November 2020, the BBC, Guardian and other media outlets in the UK and elsewhere reported the tragic story of Rasul Nezhad, his wife, Shiva Mohammad Panahi, and their children, Anita and Armin. They were a Kurdish-Iranian family who drowned while attempting to cross the English Channel from France to the UK in search of better lives. Approximately a year earlier, on 23 October 2019, 39 Vietnamese nationals suffered similarly tragic fates when they died through asphyxiation in a refrigerated lorry in which they were being smuggled into the UK.

In both cases government officials, law enforcement officers and some media accounts portrayed the issue primarily as the outcome of malicious traffickers and smugglers and hence the need to stop their operations, severely punish those apprehended and strengthen sea patrols and border checks to prevent perilous crossings. As observed elsewhere, these narratives reflect states’ reluctance to acknowledge the darker side of their border control and immigration policies. Conveniently attributing these tragedies to smugglers and traffickers is an attempt to draw public attention away from the long-standing and ever-expanding body of evidence on the strong causal linkages between, on the one hand, oppressive immigration regimes and border controls and, on the other, irregular mobility and related deaths.

Shipwrecked boats used by migrants are abandoned next to the ‘Lifejacket Graveyard’ on the island of Lesbos, Greece, 2018 (image: Fotomovimiento).

Investigations and accounts by migrants who have crossed or attempted to cross the English Channel, the Mediterranean Sea, US-Mexico border and other border areas show that most people attempting these dangerous journeys with the support of smugglers do so because they are prevented from using regular, safer and often less expensive means. This situation represents a moral and legal outrage that requires urgent redress. Since 2000, data from the IOM’s missing migrants project shows that globally at least 46,000 migrants have died along these perilous routes. Thus far in 2021, at least 75 migrants have already died who need not have. These grim figures only account for those whose deaths are witnessed or whose bodies are found, identified and duly recorded. Many deceased migrants’ bodies remain unidentified, while others go missing during their journeys and their whereabouts remain unknown to their families and loved ones.

I have recently compiled a report for the IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) as part of this organisation’s efforts to improve public and policy understanding of this issue, with emphasis on the needs of families affected by these tragedies. The IOM GMDAC project involves interviews with families and loved ones of lost or deceased migrants in Spain, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and the United Kingdom: its findings are currently undergoing analysis so cannot be elaborated upon here. However, as lead researcher for the UK arm of the project, an important lesson from this work is that the needs of lost, deceased or missing migrants’ relatives and loved ones are still poorly understood, having been peripheral to migration and rights discussions to date.

The objective of this blog is therefore to shed light on this issue. The existing research shows that families and loved ones of lost and missing migrants or those known to have perished in the course of their journeys endure immense adverse emotional and socio-economic impacts from the often-tragic circumstances of their loved ones’ deaths. Surviving families and loved ones suffer insomnia, extreme anxiety, PTSD and other forms of severe psychological stress as well-illustrated by the testimonies of relatives and friends of the Kurdish-Iranian family and the Vietnamese nationals.

Beyond the emotional and psychological effects, relatives and loved ones also suffer major economic and social impacts. This is because migrants do not always travel in search of better lives and opportunities only for themselves. Many often do so in the hope of being able to support their relatives and loved ones back home through the possibility of sending back remittances or paying for those left behind to join them once they are settled. It is not uncommon, therefore, that families sell their property, contract substantial loans or enter into massive debt agreements to fund these journeys.

Those whose loved ones perish or go missing thus face emotional anguish coupled with the socio-economic and cultural impacts of loans that need repaying, loss of property and other arrangements that were necessitated by the migrant’s journey. In some communities, death certificates or confirmation of death cannot be issued until the deceased’s body has been found. Where this is not possible, spouses who have been left behind (often women) may not be permitted to remarry or access widows’ allowances, inheritance and other rights for which confirmation of their migrant husband’s death is needed. Furthermore, as shown by the accounts of those interviewed after the deaths of the Kurdish-Iranian family and Vietnamese nationals, the media and social commentary on the tragic consequences faced by migrants can risk further traumatising those whose loved ones have suffered such fates. This is largely because many of those affected lack the relevant psychosocial support required to deal with the tragedy of a death or the stress of not knowing what has happened to their relative.

In conclusion, the cases of the Iranian family, the 39 Vietnamese and those of the many other migrants who have suffered these tragic fates once again bring into focus the multifaceted nature of the problems associated with inhumane immigration and border controls. Beyond the obvious distress and pain caused by such deaths and uncertainties about the outcomes of migrant relatives, these cases also produce extensive psychological, social, economic and other impacts on families who are left behind. The effects can be multi-generational in that they can further feed the insecurities that underlie the reasons why people are compelled to undertake these precarious journeys in the first place.

Needless deaths of migrants and any other groups should rightly provoke outrage. So, too, should the living hell foisted on surviving relatives and loved ones whose lived experiences have thus far remained peripheral to media, rights and humanitarian concern. It is expedient that discussions of the problem of migrant deaths and efforts to find solutions focus not only on the deaths and those lost or missing but also on the migrants’ families, loved ones and communities left behind.

Sam Okyere is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol. He has recently compiled a report for the IOM on the needs of families whose loved ones have died or gone missing in the course of migration and he is currently lead researcher for the Ghana arm of the ERC funded project, ‘Modern Marronage: The Pursuit and Practice of Freedom in the Contemporary World’.  

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