IOM Calls for Action to Support Families of Missing Migrants

The absence and unexplained fate of a loved one has multidimensional effects in the lives of the people they leave behind. Illustration: Salam Shokor / IOM 2021

Berlin – Tens of thousands of people live with the pain and uncertainty of not knowing the fate of their relatives and loved ones who went missing or died during migration journeys around the world. Besides the emotional toll, their lives may be forever marked by the many psychosocial, legal and financial impacts related to the disappearance of their relatives. 

“Families of missing migrants have little visibility, and their needs are barely addressed,” said Frank Laczko, Director of IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) in Berlin. 

“Besides the moral imperative, Objective 8 of the Global Compact on Migration specifically calls on states to identify those who have died or gone missing, and to facilitate communication with affected families. This is applicable regardless of migration status of the missing person or the situation of their families.” 

With the aim of giving a voice to these families, IOM GMDAC has carried out qualitative research with families searching for missing migrants in several countries, to better understand the challenges they face during their search and how they can be better supported.  

The findings from this research in Ethiopia are highlighted in a report published today: Families of missing migrants: Their search for answers, the impacts of loss and recommendations for improved support in Ethiopia. The results of the research with families of missing migrants in the United Kingdom, Spain and Zimbabwe will be published throughout the next few months.  

According to IOM’s Missing Migrants Project and Ethiopia’s Bureau of Labour and Social Affairs, between 2012 and 2020, at least 7,000 Ethiopians died or went missing on migration routes to South Africa, North Africa, Europe and the Gulf States. There are also situations of migrants going missing in transit or in places of destination that are not included in this list. It is likely that most of their families, whether in Ethiopia or elsewhere, do not have certainty about what happened to them.  

In Ethiopia, as in the other countries of research, there are no clear, centralized or official mechanisms to report missing migrants, which forces people who fear that something has happened to their relatives during their migration journeys to seek information informally, through other migrants, smuggling facilitators and social media.  

The gaps in information and the lack of effective search mechanisms allows for the prevalence of scams, fraud and extortion targeting families searching for their relatives. In some cases, Ethiopians told of their relatives who took the same migration route as their missing loved ones to try to find out what happened to them, and in doing so, faced similar dangers on the way. 

As a result of their loved one’s disappearance, families interviewed in Ethiopia described experiencing a vast range of physical, psychological and behavioural issues, ranging from anxiety, depression, hopelessness, stress, sadness and loneliness to sleep disturbance, inability to focus, loss of appetite and paralysis. Unable to obtain confirmation of the fate and whereabouts of their relatives, families cannot apply for support from community-based insurance systems, and the increased financial burden disproportionally affects women and older relatives. A father of two missing sons lamented: 

“My sons were my hope. One died during an earlier migration [journey]. The second went to search for him and also to try his luck and reach South Africa. He went missing as well. It was last year when he called after arriving in Malawi. He never called again. I am dying twice: [because] I lost them and [because] I lost hope. They used to help me till and farm the land. They were my pride. They were my hope. I am getting older and weaker. I can’t work. I rely on my relatives for agricultural labour, but they can only help me after finishing with their own farming.” 

“People who are missing their children, spouses and other relatives are not passive victims. Families in Ethiopia have developed their own community support structures to search for answers,” said Kate Dearden, one of the IOM coordinators of this project.  

“However, state-funded tools and services are urgently needed to report and resolve cases of migrants who have gone missing in other countries, as well as to help families with the impacts of this situation. This requires a humanitarian approach to this issue and sustained cooperation between countries.” 


Find the new report “Families of missing migrants: Their search for answers, the impacts of loss and recommendations for improved support - Ethiopia” here

Click here to read some of the testimonies of families of missing migrants in Ethiopia. 

“Living without them – Stories of families left behind” is a 4-part podcast series produced by IOM about the research project with families of missing migrants. Listen to the first episode here.  

For more information, please contact:  

Krizia Kaye Viray at IOM Ethiopia, Email: , Tel: +251  11 1301243, M. +251 353 1220 or 
Kate Dearden at IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (Berlin), Email: , Tel: +49 3027 877832