Eight People Die Every Day Trying to Get to Rich Countries

The first-ever global study of migrant deaths finds thousands occur every year.

(Map: Courtesy Institute of Migration)

Oct 1, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

Each year, from the deserts along the U.S.-Mexico border to the Mediterranean Sea separating Africa from Europe, thousands of migrants seeking better lives in richer countries find death instead, says a report released yesterday.

Billed as the most comprehensive tally of migrant fatalities ever compiled, the 200-page report by the International Organization for Migration finds that more than 40,000 people have died since 2000 trying to move from poor countries to rich ones. The most lethal journey? Crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, a trek that has left at least 22,000 people missing and presumed dead in the last 14 years—including as many as 500 drowned just last month when their boat sank near Malta.

Missing Migrants Project: Migrant Deaths on World Borders January-September 2014

Those numbers are driven by conflict as well as poverty: Africans are the largest group among the dead, but the number of Syrians, Libyans, and other Middle Easterners is growing, says the report. Meanwhile, in the U.S., more than 6,000 people have died since 1998 making their way through the harsh deserts along the border with Mexico.

“It is time to do more than count the number of victims,” said IOM Director General William Lacy Swing in announcing the report, Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost During Migration. “It is time to engage the world to stop this violence against desperate migrants.”

Shocking as those numbers are, they are probably underestimates. Many migrants die in remote spots, their passing going unrecorded. There is no official organization that monitors such deaths. The numbers in Fatal Journeys are compiled from governments, independent organizations, and media sources, including The Migrants Files, a project launched by a group of European journalists to document migrant deaths. That group got started in August 2013—just two months before one of the worst incidents in years, in which some 366 Eritreans, many of them children, perished in a shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa.

It’s tough to know who exactly is dying because so many migrants travel without documents and, of course, with no official record of their travels. As a result, hundreds of unidentified bodies turn up in border regions. In the U.S. Southwest, the Mexican government is funding a forensic archaeologist’s effort to use DNA to determine the identities of hundreds of unidentified corpses buried in anonymous graves. Meanwhile, “the cemeteries of Europe’s southern periphery are increasingly populated with anonymous bodies found on beaches after shipwrecks,” reports The Guardian’s Simon Roberts.

Want an idea of what it’s like to set off from Africa for Spain in a leaky, overcrowded boat packed with other migrants? Check out our own in-depth feature telling one migrant's story.