UN Migration Agency: Lack Of Data Perpetuates Invisibility of Migrant Women’s Deaths

Evidence shows that women face greater risks of death while migrating irregularly.

Berlin – Since IOM, the UN Migration Agency, began collecting data through the Missing Migrants Project in 2014, it has recorded the deaths of 1,234 women, more than half of whom died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean. This figure represents less than five percent of the total number of migrant deaths recorded during this period by the Project, which is based at IOM’s Data Analysis Centre in Berlin.

Only 31 percent of the incidents recorded by Missing Migrants Project have any information on the sex of those who died or went missing. “It is critical to seek better information on all those who go missing during migration, so that we can understand why these people risked their lives and how these deaths could have been avoided,” said Jill Helke, Director of IOM’s Department of International Cooperation and Partnerships. The reasons why so little is known about missing migrants are further discussed in IOM’s recent Fatal Journeys report.               

Nevertheless, records where the sex of a migrant is known can provide insight into where and how women die crossing borders. Worldwide, the Missing Migrants Project recorded the deaths of 525 women during migration in 2017. Though the scarcity of sex-disaggregated data on migrant deaths means that it is difficult to say which migratory route is most dangerous for women, the available data indicate that crossing the Mediterranean is particularly deadly, with the deaths of 238 women confirmed last year. The Missing Migrants Project also recorded the deaths of 141 women who died while migrating in Africa, 90 who died in Southeast Asia and 20 while trying to cross the US-Mexico border in 2017.

The vast majority of recorded migrant women’s deaths were due to drowning – 337 women lost their lives while crossing a body of water. The Mediterranean is not the only fatal sea journey location, as 79 women perished in the Bay of Bengal or the Naf River on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. Even though women comprise a smaller proportion of the overall number of deaths than men, of those recorded by Missing Migrants Project in 2017 the proportion of women who drowned was larger than the proportion of men who drowned: 64 percent of the women who perished in 2017 drowned trying to cross a body of water, compared to 42 percent of the men.

The available data show that women are also undertaking dangerous journeys by land. In 2017, 61 women died from exposure to harsh environments during their journeys, 47 due to illness and lack of access to medicines, 28 due to vehicle accidents, and 15 suffered a violent death. For 37 women, the cause of death is unknown.

Last year, 103 of the women recorded in the Missing Migrants Project database were originally from Asia, including the Middle East, while another 133 were from African nations and 44 were from the Americas. The origin of 245 others could not be determined.

Evidence shows that women face greater risks of death while migrating irregularly. Many factors contribute to this, including gendered social practices within family groups and within countries of transit as well as various smuggling tactics.

In the Mediterranean, for instance, women and children are often given places below deck or in the middle of boats with the aim of protecting them during the crossing. However, this can lead to tragic consequences as it can be more difficult to escape from that situation if a boat is in distress. Search and rescue teams report finding women and children who could not escape fast enough and suffocated from toxic fumes as a result. Qualitative findings indicate that weaker swimming skills, heavier clothing and travelling with children may also lead to higher risks of drowning.

Globally, female migrants are at high risk of sexual abuse on their journeys. Research in Latin America showed that 60 percent of women travelling irregularly through Mexico were victims of sexual assault. When women become pregnant during migration, they have special health needs that often go unaddressed and can contribute to their higher risk of fatality.     

A lack of reliable sex-disaggregated data perpetuates the invisibility of female migrant deaths. Information on the deaths of migrant women is highly contingent on the identification of bodies. As many deaths of women occur at sea, and in large numbers, the identities of those who die often remain unknown. Their remains are either not recovered from the water, or information about them is not reported by those who recover the bodies. Other incidents occur in remote locations and mostly go unrecorded.

Figures derived from NGO and official sources, the media or witness testimonies from other migrants often do not include sex-disaggregated data. This means that female migrants who die during their journeys may not be identified as such.

The Missing Migrants Project must rely on ad hoc media reporting and survivor testimonies to learn more about the women who left their homes searching for a better life and did not survive. The following incidents that involved women were recorded by MMP last year:

On 21 February 2017 the bodies of three women and one man were recovered, and another four women and four men remained missing after their boat sank off the coast of El Seibo Province, Dominican Republic. Two of the women who died were sisters Walkiria Matías Tapia and Yoleydi Matías Tapia, ages 17 and 19 and from Santo Domingo. They intended to reach Puerto Rico along with the other passengers.

On 24 July 2017, Rosa María de la Cruz Curruchich de Ortiz (37), Bernardo Ortiz de la Cruz (18), Florinda Manuel Pascal (17) and María Guadalupe Francisco Basilio (15) died trying to cross the Río Bravo, between Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, USA. Rosa and her son Bernardo travelled from their home in the rural municipality of Joyabaj, Guatemala, while Florinda and María came from San Miguel Acatán, Guatemala.

On 1 September 2017, 26 Rohingya individuals, including six women, six men, four girls and four boys died when their boat sank trying to cross the Naf River, into Teknaf, Bangladesh.  They were among the more than 650,000 Rohingya who fled violence Rakhine State, Myanmar in the last five months of 2017. In December 2017, IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix estimates that 52 percent of the Rohingya population that was in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh were women. 16 percent of Rohingya population surveyed were single mothers.

On 3 November 2017, 26 women from Nigeria, believed to be between 14 and 18 years old, died in the Central Mediterranean. Another 53 people were estimated to have gone missing in this ship wreck. Autopsies revealed that two of the women were pregnant when they died. Only two of the women were identified before being buried after a funeral held in Salerno, Italy.

The stories of missing migrants are also about the families that are left behind, many of which include mothers, wives and children. When a family member who migrated is not heard from again, this can have tragic legal, economic, social and of course, painfully emotional effects.

Note: Migrant women, as referred to in this text, include both women and girls (under age 18).

For more information contact Stylia Kampani at IOM GMDAC: Tel: +49 (0)30 278 778 16; Email: