The UK is being urged to create a dedicated agency to help migrants discover the fate of their loved ones, as deaths during migration journeys are believed to be far higher than first thought, a UN report warns.
The International Organisation of Migration (IOM) has made a number of recommendations after investigating the experiences of more than 75 families looking for relatives in the UK.
The present estimate for those who have perished crossing the English Channel is around 300, but the IOM believes the true number is far higher.
It has made a number of recommendations urging the UK to establish an agency to help migrants find their relatives without fear of reprisals from the authorities.
“The families who participated in the research in the UK are some of the tens of thousands of people living worldwide with the pain of not knowing the fate of their loved ones who went missing or died during migration journeys,” said Frank Laczko, director of the IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre in Berlin.
The research, carried out in collaboration with Dr Samuel Okyere at the University of Bristol and IOM UK, found that families of missing migrants in the UK may be migrants themselves who fear that searching for their loved ones could lead to them being prosecuted due to their uncertain immigration status.
Nearly 300 people are known to have died since 1999 along the northern coast of France, Belgium and the Netherlands, in the English Channel or shortly after crossing into the UK, according to records collected by IOM's Missing Migrants Project and the Institute of Race Relations.
“The number of missing migrants en route to the UK is likely to be much higher,” the report said.
“Many of the families involved in the research did not know the whereabouts or fate of their relatives in the Mediterranean Sea crossing and elsewhere.
“The research findings highlight that much needs to be done by policymakers, state institutions, migrant rights advocates, civil society and the general public in the UK to further develop understanding and adequate responses for the needs of families of missing migrants.
“In particular, the state should recognise that this is a humanitarian issue, and that it has a duty to facilitate the tracing of the missing and to make appropriate provisions for the deceased, regardless of their legal status and age.”
With the exception of the tracing service offered by the British Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross, in the UK there are no agencies or policies specifically dedicated to help report, locate or identify cases involving migrants who have gone missing while travelling to the country.
As a result, families primarily seek information and rely on support from informal channels, networks and community-based associations.
The British Red Cross dealt with 1,571 tracing requests in 2019 -- a 20 per cent increase from 2018 -- from people within the UK and 78 from abroad.
“Besides the emotional toll, we know that the lives of people related to missing migrants may be forever marked by the many psychosocial, legal and financial impacts,” said Dipti Pardeshi, the IOM's Chief of Mission in the UK.
The report includes 10 recommendations for how families of missing migrants in the UK can be better supported.
It calls for the establishment of a European Missing Migrants Observatory where national authorities could report and register the details of unidentified remains found across Europe, including at the continent’s sea borders, along with details of families who are searching for their missing relatives.
The report proposes the creation of a dedicated agency to help migrants and cites the difficulties which have been experienced in the cases of two men who died after falling from planes travelling to London's Heathrow Airport and the deaths of 39 migrants found in a lorry in Essex.
“There is no cohesive approach or specific laws in the UK for dealing with cases of deceased migrants, including cases where unidentified remains are found,” the report says.
“Equally, no clear protocol exists to support families who are trying to navigate the many frameworks and processes that govern the general procedures in the UK for dealing with the remains of people found dead.”
The IOM is also calling for the creation of a legal framework to protect migrants looking for their relatives.
“The provision of legal mechanisms ... would allow people with missing migrant family members to carry out searches regardless of their immigration status in the UK and without fear of sanctions,” it said.
“This provision should be included in legislation. There would also be an exceptional visa provision by the UK, implemented by UK Visas and Immigration, for families outside the UK to travel to the country to engage in processes to settle the affairs of their deceased loved ones.”
In 2019, the authorities took more than a year to identify the body of a man who dropped from a plane into a garden in London.
An incident in 2012 saw a migrant from Mozambique buried in an unmarked grave until his family were able to identify him and raise funds to repatriate him.