The Search for Their Missing Loved Ones: Migrant Communities in Southern Spain

The Search for Their Missing Loved Ones: Migrant Communities in Southern Spain

With the support of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (IOM GMDAC) is carrying out a qualitative research project in four different countries with people whose relatives went missing along migration routes. Our goal is to better understand how relatives cope with the uncertainty and tragedy while actively seeking answers, and to make recommendations over how governments and other actors can better support their efforts. Spain is one of the countries where the project is being implemented. This blog provides an overview of what families identified as some of the main impacts of having a missing migrant family member, and the obstacles faced while searching for them. The full country report will be published in the first quarter of 2021.

Mohammed1 pulled a worn-out piece of paper from his pocket. He carefully unfolded and laid it on the table for us to examine. An almost illegible photocopy of what seemed to be the first page of a passport showed the face of a young man with curly hair.

This is all that is left from him,” said Mohammed softly.

Mohammed’s brother went missing 20 years ago on his journey from Morocco to Spain. He is among 8,600 people estimated to have disappeared or lost their lives on irregular migration routes to Spain since 1988.2 Years after they stopped hearing from him, his family is still tirelessly searching for answers. People like Mohammed, who are looking to retrace their loved ones’ migration journey to Spain, face complicated bureaucratic and legal obstacles throughout the search process and have to fight their way through a confusing and cumbersome system in search of answers.

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, we spent time with families and community activists in Southern Spain to document their experiences of searching for their missing migrant loved ones and, with their support, developed recommendations on how governments and other actors can better support them in their efforts. We also assessed the legal and policy framework involving missing migrants in Spain to map the legal, bureaucratic or administrative impediments that families of missing migrants face in exercising their rights or in accessing justice in their search for their loved ones.

We found that the lack of a clearly identifiable, accessible search mechanism, and a centralized body or entity dedicated to address missing migrants’ cases, prevents families from reporting their relatives’ disappearances and authorities from responding.

Families who do not hear from their loved ones often do not approach the authorities, because they don’t even know where to start looking,” Arnaud and Elijah, two migrant community activists from Cameroon, told us.

According to the legal and policy framework on missing persons in Spain, when a person goes missing, their relatives must, in person, file a report with the law enforcement authorities presiding over the jurisdiction or location where the disappearance took place. This procedure is virtually impossible to follow by the families of those who have died or disappeared on migration routes to Spain. The process of obtaining a visa to travel to Spain to report a disappearance is virtually out of reach for most families given the requirements related to travel and the associated costs, not to mention the significant linguistic and cultural barriers they would have to face.

Many family members living in Spain are also reluctant to come forward and report the disappearance of their loved ones given their immigration status and the precariousness associated with it. Families fear that making themselves known to the authorities may lead to their detention or deportation. The family of Ibrahim, who has been searching for their niece Binta since 2016, has not filed a report for this very reason:

I was already living in Spain when she disappeared. My brother [Binta’s dad] called me to tell me. […] We did not file a complaint here [in Spain], nor in Senegal. My brother is undocumented, so he didn’t want to interact with the police.

These barriers have resulted in families relying on non-governmental, often informal channels, to search for their missing loved ones. Through the research we learned how actors from civil society and local communities in Southern Spain self-organize in support of families. These efforts are led by community-based, grassroots activists who are often migrants themselves, fluent in the languages of the families, and who have deep understanding of the circumstances faced by the families and their communities. Activists participate in searches, document disappearances and provide emergency assistance to families during their free time, not receiving any financial compensation for their work. Any information is obtained through personal connections and interactions, given the lack of a systematized mechanism for people to secure information.

Amira, an advocate of Moroccan origin who is helping Mohamed and Ibrahim look for their missing relatives, described the process: “When a family contacts me or someone in the group, we start the process of seeking information through a network of informal, unofficial contacts…We look for [the missing] in hospitals, then in detention centres and prisons (through court-appointed lawyers who are allowed to enter the different centres), and eventually at the morgue (also through informal contacts).”

In addition to the legal and institutional challenges described above, our conversations with families and community actors revealed how gender perceptions can shape search processes and create gendered barriers and challenges that put people in a disadvantage. For example, gendered perceptions of women translates into them often being excluded from the search process or having limited access to information concerning the status of a search.

Ousmane, who has been helping his nephew’s mother in her search for her missing son, told us: “When I go to my parents' village [in Guinea-Bissau], his mother always comes to see me. I always tell her that I don't know [anything], but I actually think her son is not alive. […] She keeps waiting, she still has hope of finding her son. […] But I haven't told her that I think her son is dead.”

This does not only hinder communication, but often restricts the decision-making process of the search to a few – quite often, male relatives or male community members – and for women’s perspectives and/or needs to be dismissed. Although this is often done with the intent of protecting them, their priorities and knowledge are often ignored or overlooked, ultimately becoming excluded from decisions that affect them (for example, determinations concerning inheritances, land ownership, etc.).

While most cases we identified involved male missing migrants, some included women. In these cases, we observed a tendency for families to consider a missing migrant woman as dead even when her death had not been confirmed. Families often explained or even justified migrant women’s disappearances as a consequence of social transgressions (for example, having departed on their own without parental authorization, or having left their children behind). Some families also opt to refer to their missing female loved ones as dead when they suspect they are engaging in sex work. Ibrahim, who has been looking for his niece since 2016, commented: "[The reason we don't speak about this case] is because her mother doesn't want to talk about it, because she knows, because she feels that [her daughter] disappeared because she may be engaged in sex work in Libya. Her father called me because although they had not confirmed that she had died, they wanted to do all the funeral rituals already.” Men’s disappearances are not explained along these lines.

How can families and community activists in Spain be better supported?

The search for missing persons and determining their fates or whereabouts are humanitarian duties of States, regardless of the nature of the journeys in which migrants lost their lives.

Proactive policies and measures are required to promote 'safe reporting’ for people regardless of their immigration status in Spain. In other words, there is a need for a firewall that allows undocumented family members to file complaints without fear of apprehension or deportation. Allowing the relatives of missing migrants who do not live in Spain to file missing persons reports – either by creating or enabling a mechanism through consular channels that allows families to file reports remotely (from their countries of residence), or by allowing them entry into Spain to carry out the search under humanitarian visas and grounds – can be effective ways to allow people to get information concerning their loved ones.

Supporting the efforts of community members and activists who provide services to families searching for missing migrants is key to developing trust in institutions, to strengthen the capacity of migrant communities and organizations, and to address the structural discrimination and racism that their families experience in their everyday lives, and specifically in the search process.

It is important that any solutions involve all interested family members, including women and children, build environments in which they can contribute to the search process and receive emotional support in ways that are meaningful to them, and that allow them to be aware of findings but also of decisions concerning their missing relatives. It is important to listen to what all involved family members have to say, respecting their decisions and creating paths for inclusive participation.

Until these steps are taken, the lives of people like Mohammed will remain in limbo, unable to find out what happened to their loved ones. Mohammed told us that he is still searching for his brother: “If [my brother] is alive today, he would be about 46. I just want to know what happened to him.”



Marta Sánchez Dionis works as a Project Officer at IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) on the Missing Migrants Project and the pilot research project “Assessing the needs of families searching for relatives lost in the Central and Western Mediterranean”, funded by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. Dr. Gabriella Sanchez is a Research Fellow at the Migration Policy Centre (MPC) of the European University Institute, where she leads the Migrant Smuggling research agenda. The opinions expressed by the authors do not necessarily imply endorsement by IOM.

Clarification notes:

1 We used pseudonyms to protect the privacy of the families. 
2 This figure has been calculated using data from research carried out by porCausa and Andalucía Acoge and covering the years between 1988 and 1996 (in Spanish), data from the Andalusian Association for Human Rights (APDHA) covering the years between 1997 and 2013 (in Spanish), and data from IOM’s Missing Migrants Project covering the years between 2014 and 2020 (as of 31 October 2020). The combined data of these organizations reveal that 8,687 people died or disappeared trying to migrate to Spain between 1 November 1988 and 9 December 2020.