Justice for Migrants: Sharing lessons between Latin America and the Euro-Mediterranean

May 10, 2017

On the 12th and 13th of May, during the 2017 Sabir Festival of the Mediterranean Cultures in Syracuse, Sicily, migrants’ rights organizations from the Euro-Mediterranean and Latin America will come together to discuss approaches to supporting families of migrants who die or disappear in transit, sharing lessons on how to respond to urgent need on the ground.


While migration is a time old phenomenon, the last few years have seen a series of acute refugee crises erupt around the globe. Across Latin America, South East Asia, Africa and the Middle East, widespread conflict, political violence and chronic poverty are driving increasing numbers to risk everything in search of safer and better lives. The most visible of these crises is in the Euro-Mediterranean region, through which hundreds of thousands of migrants have fled since 2014.

Many of these migrants, driven towards safety and stability in Europe, set off from North Africa across the Mediterranean Sea. Those that attempt the crossing resort to doing so in unfit, dangerously overcrowded boats, putting their lives in the hands of traffickers who profit from Europe’s increasingly securitized borders. Many of them never live to tell the tale. In 2016, of the 360,000 recorded migrants who took to the sea, over 5,000 died or were never seen again. At the time of writing, 1,380 more have met the same fate since the beginning of 2017. Considering all those whose journey slipped through unrecorded, the true number could be much higher still.

According to a 2016 report by the Mediterranean Missing project, the majority of deceased migrants discovered on European shores are buried without being identified. The unprecedented scale of the crisis has overwhelmed the capacity of authorities in receiving countries to investigate deaths, much less trace their families. A plethora of logistical challenges and weak cooperation between state agencies such as Italy and Greece, the main destination for those crossing the Mediterranean Sea, has made it difficult for authorities to contact families across borders. Many relatives live in great precarity themselves and are unable to travel to identify their loved ones or repatriate their bodies. These families are the invisible victims of the migrant crisis. Lying in perpetual wait for answers, unable to grieve for or properly mourn their loved ones, they are haunted by the thought of their final days, thousands of miles away from home. In 2016, as a first step to helping bridge the gap between families and the authorities, and increase their chances of recovering their loved ones, the Fund supported a coalition of Euro-Mediterranean migrants’ rights organizations, Boats4People, to develop a guide which provides relatives with information on the steps to take when trying to trace their relatives who they suspect have disappeared or lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea.

Families across Latin America understand this anguish well. Severe poverty, violence and a lack of local opportunity have long driven migrants to make the dangerous journey from Central America to Mexico and the United States. Many of these migrants never make it. Some succumb to thirst and exhaustion after hours crossing the desert in the burning sun. Others fall victim to organized crime, like the seventy-two migrants who were slaughtered in San Fernando in 2010, or the forty-nine who were murdered by a roadside near Monterrey in 2012.  Many migrants are never seen again and, even if their bodies are recovered, a large number are never identified. Families and local NGOs continue to denounce the weak capacity and will of authorities that prevents deaths from being properly investigated and prevents affected families from finding closure.

This tragic history of migration in Latin America has left haunted families in its wake. But it has also prompted local human rights organizations to develop innovative, holistic strategies that empower relatives of missing migrants and encourage them to become protagonists in the search for truth and justice. Mexican Fund grantee Fundacion para la Justicia et el Estado Democrático de Derecho (FJEDD) has become a leading voice in calling for approaches that permit families to channel their pain into concrete action. In 2011, alongside the internationally-acclaimed Equipo Argentino de Anthropologia Forense (EAFF) – which has pioneered forensic anthropology techniques to identify victims of enforced disappearances – FJEDD launched the Truth and Justice Network, a family-centred regional coordination network to improve searches for disappeared migrants across Mexico and Central America. The network brings together committees of family members with local organizations from Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala and the United States. This network not only a fills a gap through which relatives used to fall through, but is making impressive strides towards truth and justice for missing migrants. Following sustained advocacy, the network successfully pressed the Mexican authorities to create a peer-review system for autopsies of discovered remains, which has resulted in the correct identification of over forty migrant victims of massacres, including those of San Fernando and Cadereyta described above. The network has also made strides in improving access to justice by fostering a transnational mechanism through which families of migrant victims can file legal complaints and follow up investigations from their homes in Central America. Most importantly, the network’s tireless efforts are helping families find closure, learn the fate of their loved ones, and give them a dignified burial that reflects their traditions and beliefs.

The work of FJEDD and EAAF is an inspiring example of what can be achieved when migrants’ relatives are placed at the heart of the fight for truth and justice. Their lessons could help to complement and strengthen the pioneering work of Boats4People to help end the suffering of families across Africa and the Middle East. Now, for the first time, organizations from both continents will able to come together to share their experiences and strengthen their efforts to bring justice to migrants and the families they leave behind.

On Friday the 12th of May, Boats4People will launch their guide for the families of deceased and missing migrants at the 2017 Sabir Festival. With the Fund’s support, Ana Lorena Delgadillo from Mexican grantee Fundación para la Justicia y el Estado Democrático de Derecho (FJEDD) and forensic anthropologist Mercedes Doretti from the Argentine Team of Forensic Anthropologists (EAAF) will attend the launch, and participate in a discussion on approaches to supporting families across the two regions.

Follow @FundHumanRights for live tweeting from this event on May 12th from 2.30 to 5 pm GTM+2 (8:30 am – 11 am EST).