Blog post by Danai Angeli, Assistant Professor, Bilkent University, and Consultant to the Last Rights Project, and forms part of a series of blog posts examining the implementation of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.
Objective 8 GCM: “to “save lives and establish coordinated international efforts on missing migrants”
Objective 8 of the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) lays down, for the first time, a universal framework of cooperation to address one of the most disturbing realities of contemporary migration: migrant death and disappearance. Worldwide, at least 13,594 migrants have lost their lives since 2014, in their effort to cross international borders; 1,209 died between January-May 2021. These are only conservative estimates; the true number of fatalities is likely much higher. International human rights law has long recognised the duty of States to rescue those in danger, to search for the missing, and to ensure grieving families’ right to truth, justice and closure – regardless of origin or migrant status. In 2018, the particular duties of States in relation to migrant death and disappearance were articulated in the Mytilini Declaration.
Objective 8 takes a significant step towards establishing the necessary international cooperative framework to manage migrant fatalities. Under Objective 8 States agree to cooperate:
- To prevent deaths and injury;
- To identify the dead and the missing; and
- To assist the affected families.
States further agree that they will draw from the following actions to realise this commitment:
- Develop search and rescue procedures, and review their national migration policies
- Collect and systematise forensic data for the identification of human remains
- Establish coordination channels, and designate contact points for families searching for relatives
- Handle deceased migrants in a dignified manner, and repatriate their mortal remains respecting the grieving families’ wishes.
Objective 8 adopts thereby a holistic approach towards managing loss of life, consistent with international law and human rights norms. Objective 8 addresses not only death, but also unexplained disappearance and bereavement. The suggested actions cut across the different stages of migration management and intersect with several other GCM objectives (2, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 14, 15, 17, 21, 23): border management, reception, integration, consular assistance and repatriation.
2. Objective 8 not among States’ “key priorities”
Notwithstanding the urgency and gravity of the situation, many States fail to address Objective 8 in their GCM review reports. Particularly striking is the silence of Greece. Every year, hundreds of migrants die or go missing at the land and sea borders of Greece, in an attempt to cross into Europe. Between 2015-2016 alone, IOM recorded 1,237 migrant deaths in the Aegean Sea; the highest number of fatalities in the Mediterranean Sea. Furthermore, the Greek government has repeatedly come under international scrutiny on account of its controversial border and death management policies. According to the justification provided by the Greek government, the report addresses only some GCM objectives, namely those “that are most relevant to our current national priorities… and the urgent challenges we are confronted with”. Not regarding Objective 8 as a key priority in a country with a high annual rate of migrant deaths comes as a surprise. There are however, other countries that have failed to address Objective 8 at all (e.g. Armenia, Canada, Russia, the Netherlands, and several Scandinavian countries); the main reason provided being the lack of relevance of Objective 8 to their national context.
3. Why Objective 8 is relevant to all national contexts
The assumption that Objective 8 is only relevant to specific States, namely those situated at dangerous border crossings is misconceived.
Objective 8 does not only deal with border deaths; its scope is much broader. It encompasses death and injuries along any stage of the migration journey, as well as presumed death and disappearance. The extent to which each country may be affected is to this day unknown. While some dead bodies are found, mainly along major migratory routes; many others are never found and never recorded. Missing migrants are often assumed to have found safety in other countries; but they might have perished instead. Assuming that Objective 8 is not relevant because there are no known border deaths constitutes a misreading of Objective 8 and denies its raison-d’être.
Bereavement is a separate, equally important dimension of Objective 8. Grieving families searching for their dead or missing relatives may be found in any national context. They may be left behind in the country of origin; they may have been separated while transiting through countries; or they may be awaiting news having reached the destination country. Objective 8 is in this sense of relevance to all countries.
International cooperation is an integral part and sine qua non condition for Objective 8. Saving lives, identifying the missing, repatriating the dead, and assisting the families are actions that by their very nature require transnational coordination. To reach the necessary level of international cooperation, changes in laws and policies are needed by all countries, including those with reportedly low fatality rates.
4. Objective 8 is not only about rescuing migrants at sea
The majority of States addressing Objective 8 in their reports focus mainly on saving lives, primarily at sea. Few States address their commitments in relation to missing migrants; and even fewer their commitments towards grieving families and in particular the management of mortal remains.
Statistics, where shared, are very limited. The Spanish and the UK reports cite the numbers of migrants they rescued in the Mediterranean Sea in specific years. Uzbekistan reports on the number of mortal remains that have been repatriated with the support of a specific fund. Sweden does not provide figures, but highlights their importance and mentions that it is cooperating with partner countries and regional organisations to this purpose.
The overall lack of data stands in juxtaposition to the detailed figures many States provide in relation to other GCM Objectives. It also raises issues with the overall implementation of Objective 8. The GCM itself highlights the importance of collecting and sharing quality data and statistics for effective migration management and evidence-based policy making (GCM Objective 1).
5. Saving lives at sea: what about deaths on land?
Most State reports associate Objective 8 with saving lives at sea. Accordingly, implementation mainly consists of rescue operations and provision of operational and other forms of assistance to coastal States bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The extent of support varies.
Malta for instance refers to its Search and Rescue (“SAR”) agreements and the national resources it has invested to fulfil its international obligations at sea “regardless of the provenance and/or legal status of the persons requiring rescue.” Spain also refers to its SAR activities, to improved cooperation with neighbouring States and solidarity in disembarkations.
The UK states that a significant part of its effort is directed at “reducing the number of dangerous “small boat” crossings across the English Channel,” which are life-threatening. It further describes in detail the operational support it has been providing to the EU naval operations in the Aegean – and the Mediterranean Sea. Germany reports that “the primary responsibility for the coordination of maritime search and rescue lies with the coastal state,” noting that it has made operational forces available to Frontex and is the “the second largest IOM donor”. Since 2018 Germany has also voluntarily assumed responsibility for examining the applications of persons rescued at sea and has been advocating for a fair distribution system to this effect.
Concrete actions to save lives at land border crossings are generally missing even among States receiving large flows. Croatia and Albania refer to the international treaties on search and rescue at sea. Serbia acknowledges that the Western Balkan region is one of the key transit areas for irregular migrants; but does not report any concrete actions to prevent deaths along the migratory route. Turkey does not cite any concrete operational actions either; but highlights its efforts “to strengthen the cooperation between origin countries and destination countries” through exchange of visits, and to understand irregular migration routes through an IOM joint study.
Death at sea is undoubtedly a core aspect of Objective 8. But migrant deaths also occur on land, including mountains and deserts, as well as in camps; in places of detention; in rivers and in other waterways. They form a significant part of Objective 8, which cannot be left out.
6. Searching for missing migrants: an urgent need for procedures
Few State reports address the issue of missing migrants. In most cases, States rely on their own domestic systems to search for and identify the missing. Depending on the national context diverse actors may get involved, often on an ad hoc basis. Several reports highlight, however, the need for better national and transnational procedures.
Albania openly acknowledges that it “does not have a set of specific rules and procedures on missing migrants.” The government, however, “is collaborating regularly with other international organisations and other countries” to search and identify the missing. North Macedonia also highlights gaps in the procedure, especially in relation to unidentified remains. In numerous cases the Government has collaborated with UNHCR and the Red Cross to trace family members dispersed in different countries. In the case of unidentified bodies, however, “it is necessary to establish a clear procedure… and to delegate clear competences among the institutions.” According to North Macedonia there is also a need for better consular cooperation, for the purposes of sharing Information about migrants who have died passing through the country. “Additional expansion of the communication network and providing regular communication channels remains to be priority in managing the migration flows.”
Other States rely on their general law enforcement procedures. Kazakhstan for instance mentions that the procedure for tracing missing individuals is governed by its law “On Law Enforcement Intelligence Operations” and other relevant acts. Germany refers to a common database that the Federal and Land Criminal Police Offices use to manage cases of missing persons and unidentified bodies. “This database is also used for foreign nationals when there are links to Germany.”
Belgium refers to the Red Cross and the latter’s website www.RestoringFamilyLinks.be, launched in 2018: “…the Red Cross supports families who are looking for relatives from whom they have been separated by conflict via their ‘tracing’ department”.
Overall, the GCM reports on missing migrants reveal an urgent need for well-regulated national procedures and transnational tracing mechanisms.
The issue of missing migrants poses one of the biggest challenges of migration management. Establishing the identity of a deceased undocumented migrant is undoubtedly arduous. Tracing family members who may be dispersed in different countries can also prove very complex.
Matters as complicated cannot be resolved by any one country acting alone, or through ad hoc collaborations and NGO initiatives. General law enforcement procedures that may work well for nationals, do not necessarily offer a reliable solution either. A major impediment is the reluctance of many foreign nationals, especially those with an irregular status, to interact with law enforcement. Migrants have particular needs that require procedures tailored to their situation.
7. Honouring the dead: deceased migrants and grieving families should not be left out
Objective 8 expressly recognises that the dead are owed respect, and that grieving families should be assisted in honouring their deceased relatives. Yet very few GCM review reports address death management systems.
Some States report (under different GCM Objectives) actions they have taken to assist their own nationals abroad in the event of death. Belgium for instance mentions that it has a highly developed civil registry system that can issue documents to all of its citizens in a secure manner, including death certificates. North Macedonia mentions that its consulates are authorised to issue death certificates and certificates to repatriate mortal remains. To better assist its nationals abroad, it plans to shorten the time of the procedure.  Uzbekistan provides life insurance subsidies to citizens temporarily working abroad. The Government has also established a fund which covers amongst others “the transportation of the bodies of citizens who died in the process of labor migration outside the country”. According to the Uzbek Government, the fund has thus far repatriated 732 bodies of deceased citizens. 
The treatment of deceased migrants by the host State itself is addressed in the report of North Macedonia. The Government acknowledges that there have been “serious complaints” from the public “regarding the absence of a transparent procedure for the actions of State authorities in cases of death of a migrant and the absence of a protocol that would be followed.” Where the identity of the deceased is known, “usually the consulate of the country of origin of the deceased is informed through the MFA (if it is possible to contact the authorities of the country).” If the identity cannot be established, a procedure remains to be established.
Many States refer in different parts of their reports to “vulnerable” migrants that ought to be protected. It is unclear to what extent the term ‘vulnerable’ also includes bereaved migrants. To our knowledge, none of the reports lists bereaved migrants as an example of a vulnerable category; nor is there explicit reference to the particular legal, practical and socio-psychological barriers grieving families may be facing.
Ensuring dignity in death is a core component of Objective 8. Deceased migrants and grieving families cannot be excluded from the implementation of the GCM.
8. The way ahead
Objective 8 rests upon a universal norm: the worth of human life. Realising Objective 8 requires first and foremost recognition of this normative imperative; and second, the adoption of a holistic approach towards implementation, that will address all of its dimensions.
Last Rights calls for all States to include data and narrative information on the implementation of Objective 8 in their GCM review reports; and to be required to do so in their periodic reports to the UN in compliance with international human rights standards.
Objective 8 offers an opportunity for States to address and remedy one of “the great, untold tragedies” of contemporary international migration. It is not to be missed.
 last accessed: 9 May 2021
 Canada’s detailed report, for instance, focuses on sharing internationally “promising practices and lessons learned” to advance the GCM implementation; there are none to share on Objective 8. Armenia acknowledges that “owing to the migration context in the country…some objectives have been naturally prioritised”; Objective 8 is not among them. Finland provides inputs on some “key objectives”; Objective 8 is not one of them. The Dutch report focuses greatly on human trafficking. It notes that “the vast majority of migrants enter the Netherlands in a regular, safe and legal manner” and emphasises that “trafficking- and smuggling in human beings… constitutes one of the most negative aspects of migratory movements, coming at great human costs”; Objective 8 is missing.
 According to Spain, 50.000 immigrants were saved in 2018 and almost 18.000 in 2019 in the context of their SAR operations; the UK states that its search and rescue vessel completed 145 SAR missions in 2019-2020 in the Aegean as part of Operation Poseidon rescuing 1,584 people.
 Under Uzbekistan’s Fund for the Support and Protection of the Rights and Interests of Citizens Working Abroad, 732 bodies of citizens who died during the period of their labor activity abroad were repatriated [Unofficial translation in English; Original available here].
 Serbia’s measures focus on preventing irregular crossings altogether
 Turkey address Objective 8 in combination with Objectives 2, 7, 12 and 13
 Objective 4
 Objectives 6 and 14
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