The response of some governments to the migration issue has been to focus on deterrence – policing the coast of the southern Mediterranean and turning back refugees and migrants with the help of countries of embarkation. A number of European states have restricted entry and have, in some instances, hampered maritime aid operations by NGOs, arguing that these encourage desperate people to risk their lives by raising the prospect of rescue and refuge in Europe.

This strategy has had mixed results. Refugees and migrants have been sent back to embarkation ports, many of them in Libya, where returnees have routinely been subject to arbitrary detention. And, while fewer refugees have tried to make the journey, fatalities and disappearances have continued. In the first month of 2019, the number was already well into the hundreds.

The Mediterranean remains the scene of daily tragedies, even if the reduction in the number of migrants reaching Europe has reduced media coverage of these tragedies.

At a conference being organised in Malta on Thursday by the President’s Foundation for the Well-being of Society and Missing Children Europe, the International Commission on Missing Persons, in cooperation with Missing People (UK), will hold a workshop in Valletta on migration policy, particularly as it affects missing children.

Participants at the event, entitled ‘Accounting for the missing is an investment in peace’, will hear testimony from individuals who have travelled on migration routes and who have experienced at first hand the disappearance of a loved one on their journey. Discussion will cover the mechanisms that exist to report and locate missing migrants and gaps in the current system will be reviewed. Responses based on a modern, rights-based, rule-of-law approach will be proposed.

Cooperation between states and with international institutions is an indispensable element in accounting for the missing. For example, family members of missing migrants may be still in their country of origin or have left their country and settled in Europe or may be stranded in, for instance, Libya.

The Mediterranean remains the scene of daily tragedies

There is an urgent need to mobilise existing capacities among European countries such as Cyprus, Greece, Malta and Italy. All four countries expressed a strong interest during an ICMP meeting held in Rome in June 2012 in enhancing cooperation to use their domestic capabilities more effectively. In the longer term, a collective response at the European level would make their cooperative effort more meaningful.

Many people will share a strong sense of sympathy and solidarity with the families of missing migrants but they may also ask why governments should allocate resources to accounting for migrants who went missing when such resources may be required elsewhere.

One response to this is that accounting for missing migrants is not simply a humanitarian option, it is a legal requirement. States have a duty to investigate the fate and whereabouts of missing people (regardless of whether or not they are citizens), including the circumstances of their disappearance.

Under the European Convention on Human Rights, states must ensure and respect the rights of everyone within their territory, not just of European citizens. Cyprus, Greece, Malta and Italy are among the 98 countries that have signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which requires undertaking appropriate investigations in cases where people are subjected to enforced disappearance.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child affirms that states have a responsibility to take all available measures to make sure children’s rights are respected, protected and fulfilled and that they must make the best interests of the child their primary consideration, including upholding the rights of survivors in cases where people go missing.

If governments ignore these responsibilities, they undermine the rule of law that protects everyone – from the most secure citizen to the most vulnerable refugee.

What must be done?

There are a number of practical measures that can be implemented in the short and medium term. Cyprus, Greece, Malta and Italy are cooperating to identify the areas where they can avoid duplicating effort and resources and coordinate their activities to account for missing migrants more effectively.

Creating and operating an effective programme to account for tens of thousands of people is challenging but it can be done. The ICMP established such a programme after the conflict in the former Yugoslavia where it has been possible to account for well over 70 per cent of the 40,000 people who went missing during the conflict.

We believe that, through cooperation and coordination, European countries can tackle this problem quickly and effectively. This will have multiple benefits for transit and destination countries as well as countries of origin  and it can bring closure to families whose dream of safety in Europe has mutated all too often into a nightmare.

Kathryne Bomberger is the director-general of the International Commission on Missing Persons.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece