Behind the Numbers

By Tara Brian, IOM Research Department

French Spanish

Calculating migrant deaths in border regions is a great challenge and the true number of deaths remains unknown. The vast majority of governments do not publish numbers of deaths, and counting the lives lost is largely left to civil society and the media. Several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) exist to track deaths in regions known for high irregular migration flows and dangerous border crossings. These include the southern border of the European Union (EU), the South Pacific/Australia and the United States–Mexico border region. The IOM,  UNHCR, Danish Refugee Council, and organizations like Refugees International, among others, also report to a greater or lesser degree on deaths in some areas, such as the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, as well as the Indian Ocean and Caribbean. While the number of deaths associated with “desperation migration” are not entirely known, rough estimates are possible. For instance, it is estimated that in the past two decades roughly 20,000 people have lost their lives in efforts to reach the European Union’s southern border. However, even in relatively well-documented areas there remains a dark numbers problem: migrants whose bodies are never found, or who wash up on the coast of Africa, for instance, and are not registered. Furthermore, the definition of what constitutes a border-related death is hazy and how migrant deaths are measured may be influenced by the political motivations of those recording data.

Missing data

Migrants in many regions of the world face great danger as they travel over land, sea and air to reach their destinations. For many of these regions, there is a severe lack of data, making attempts to record deaths on a global scale a daunting task and one that cannot hope to capture the full extent of the lives lost. Areas for which we lack data include much of inland Africa, Central America, inland South East Asia, to name only a few. Some estimates, for instance, suggest that up to 10,000 migrants have died in Africa in less than a decade – data which are not possible to verify and are not included in the global figure presented here. In another example, research conducted by IOM on African migrants smuggled to South Africa, found that 10 per cent of interviewed individuals travelling from Somalia reported deaths among members of their group. Because of the scale of these unrecorded deaths, the global figure presented in this research claims only to give a minimum estimate of recoded deaths in relatively well documented border regions. Through improved record keeping of migrant deaths around the world, we can draw greater attention to the tragedy that is occurring.

Below, you can find explanations of various border regions for which data are available.

South Pacific Ocean

Data are taken from the Australian Border Deaths Database of Monash University, which began recording deaths associated with Australia’s borders in 2011. Covering the period from 1 January 2000 to the present, the database now contains a record of over 1,487 deaths. The list is compiled through a combination of media searching and networking with NGOs and lawyers, and does not claim to be a comprehensive account of all deaths. Deaths occurring beyond Australian waters, yet patrolled by Australian naval and coastguard vessels, are unlikely to be officially documented.

Southern border of the European Union

Data are drawn from Fortress Europe, a project led by Gabriele Del Grande that records all deaths of migrants attempting to enter Europe up until 12 October 2013. The list is compiled by extensive review of media reports. The most prominent organization documenting migrant deaths related to border control in Europe is UNITED for Intercultural Action. Their “list of deaths,” documenting deaths associated with border control, includes 17,306 deaths from 1 January 1993 to November 2012. At the time of research, this list did not include data for 2013.

United States–Mexico Border

Deaths of migrants attempting to cross the United States border have been recorded by the United States Border Patrol since 1998. Drawn from a report of the National Foundation for American Policy, migrant deaths counted by the US Border patrol in fiscal year 2012 amounted to 477. Several NGOs also record the number of deaths in border regions. For the purposes of the present research, data were drawn from the Chief Medical Examiner in Pima County, Arizona, one of the most transited regions for irregular migrants entering the United States. These data are collected in the recently created Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants, the result of an ongoing partnership between the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner and the non-profit organization, Humane Borders, Inc. For this region alone, 146 bodies had been found by mid-September 2013.

As no figure is available for 2013, the figure presented was arrived at by using data from Pima County and the US Border Patrol, such that the share of migrants who died in Pima County in 2012 was maintained in 2013, leading to a number of 444. Thus, this number is only an approximation.

Bay of Bengal

Figures on migrant deaths are cited by UNHCR for 2012 and from Refugees International for data covering the period from October 2012 until July 2013 (the latter number is listed in the current research as deaths from 2013). Figures show a dramatic increase from 2011, in which the recorded number of deaths stood at 140

Northern Africa

Data on deaths in Northern Africa have been compiled through a media search. Migrant deaths in this region are certainly higher than numbers recorded here. The project Fortress Europe reports that since 1996, over 1,703 people have died crossing the Sahara to reach the coast.

Gulf of Aden, Red Sea and Horn of Africa

Data on deaths of migrants attempting to cross the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea to reach Yemen are drawn from the UNHCR. UNHCR statistics show that the rate of death during crossing from the Horn to Yemen has gone from 1,056 in 2008, to 529 in 2009, to 19 in 2010 and in the first half of this year only 5 were recorded. Numbers collected relating to drowning or missing at sea are likely a considerable underestimation, however. Even before the sea voyage, migrants traversing overland to reach the coastline are also at great risk. In a recent study by the Danish Refugee Council in which Ethiopian migrants were interviewed, although the figure is impossible to verify, some respondents claimed that as many as 50 percent of those who begin the migration journey die from either exposure to the elements or suffocation in transit.

Caribbean Sea

Data on deaths in the Caribbean Sea are those cited by UNHCR for 2013. The figure for 2012 is based on a media search of incidents in that year. This figure may not account for all deaths in 2013, but should be seen as an approximate and minimum number. 

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