Improving the Response to Missing Migrants

The development of guidance materials to search for missing migrants and support their families through a global participative process.

Improving the Response to Missing Migrants

The development of guidance materials to search for missing migrants and support their families through a global participative process.

Karla Quintana, National Commission for the Search, Mexico on the need for coordinated search efforts.

The project in brief

Implemented by

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - Switzerland; and Switzerland


The guidance documents are general in nature and could be applied in a broad range of contexts. ICRC is beginning to use these documents to engage state authorities and international organizations in a growing number of contexts and across the regions of: Americas, West & Central Africa, Southern Africa, Southern Africa, Europe, Middle East & North Africa.


The project began in May 2019 and is expected to be completed in July 2022. The Guidance materials developed through this project will be integrated into ICRC’s engagement of states and other actors on this issue and will be updated when needed.


With Swiss support, the ICRC’s Missing Persons Project reached out to a broad range of institutional actors, practitioners, and family representatives to develop technical guidance on the creation of search mechanisms for missing migrants and on interaction with affected families. It also developed a dataset to support harmonisation of information collection for search purposes. These documents incorporate and illustrate practices developed around the world and suggest a multi-stakeholder approach to address this complex transnational challenge.

Project aims

The project seeks to fill an important gap in guidance available to states and other stakeholders related to the complex and growing challenge of resolving cases of migrants (including refugees) going missing. It seeks to study evolving practices across different contexts to identify key recommendations on how to shape responses with a particular focus on creating transnational mechanisms to support the search and ensuring appropriate interaction with affected families.

Elements useful to facilitation

  • Swiss Government Funding supporting the development of these documents.
  • The development, by the Regional Conference on Migration (RCM) in the Americas, of a set of guidelines on cooperation in the search for missing migrants (currently under adoption by its Member States)&emdash; a document which served was one of the starting points for this project.

Main activities of the project

The collection, centralization and sharing of data among key stakeholders should be modelled after the guidelines on coordination and information exchange mechanisms for the search of missing migrants, under development by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). These standards guide the collection, processing, and exchange of relevant information on missing migrant cases, its centralization at the local and national level and sharing and exchange along migratory routes between countries of origin, transit and destination.

Guiding Principles and Recommendations for a Comprehensive Response to Families of Missing Migrants, IOM, 2021

The project consisted of four stages.

First, a meeting was convened in Guatemala in 2019, in cooperation with IOM’s Missing Migrants Project and the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), to bring together practitioners in the missing migrants field and affected families from around the world. Over three days, they discussed areas where a lack of guidance was impeding the response. The result was a proposal to ICRC to work on three specific guidance documents related to:

  1. the setting up of transnational mechanisms for the search involving both state and non-state stakeholders;
  2. interaction with affected families taking into account the specific challenges related to the migratory context; and
  3. a data set to help harmonise information collection for the purpose of the search.

Second, consultants and ICRC experts worked to prepare draft documents on each of the three topics during the following year.

Third, three smaller global expert meetings were held in order to refine the draft documents.

Fourth, the revised draft documents were published over several months and in several languages on the ICRC website to elicit public comments. On the basis of the comments received, final versions of each document were developed.

Alicia Lusiardo (Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, EAAF) on the need for standardised information collection.

These are now published on the ICRC's website in English:

Arabic, French, Russian and Spanish translations will follow.


Challenges and how they were overcome

The project was initially conceived around a series of in-person meetings on different topics to be held in different regions. Following an initial launch in Antigua, Guatemala in 2019, and a follow up expert workshop in Tunis, Tunisia, in February 2020, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic rendered further in person meetings impossible.

The project quickly switched to online meetings with a first online workshop on Draft Guiding Principles on the Interaction with Families of Missing Migrants taking place in March 2020 with simultaneous interpretation into French.

We are collaborating with the Missing Persons Project of the ICRC, on the one side trying to normalize the collection of data in the forensic systems, trying to collect the information and to be able to access all the information that we could have concerning bodies, and on the other side, we try to protect witnesses and survivors.

Filippo Furri, Boats4People

Results of the project

It is too early to determine the impact of these documents on the lives of refugees and migrants in general. Having been launched in December 2021 these documents will be a key tool for the ICRC, Switzerland, and others to engage states and other actors with a view to putting in place more effective transnational efforts to address the plight of missing migrants with families at the centre.

The project relates to GCR Objective 1 - to ease the pressures on host communities, and Objective 2 - to enhance refugee self-reliance.

Host countries will benefit from the set-up of transnational, multi-stakeholder mechanisms as having a missing family member can be a debilitating weight on refugees and other migrants directing all their efforts and resources to the search rather than on sustaining life in their host country. Migrants and refugees who are in search of their loved ones may face difficulties with socio-economic integration in host countries given the traumatizing effect of unresolved disappearances and the lack of closure for affected individuals.

The creation of transnational search mechanisms will contribute to reducing the uncertainty faced by refugees and migrants missing a loved one and, by establishing their fate and whereabouts and/or helping to reunite families, allow them focus on building their lives.

Next steps

As a next step, the ICRC foresees the organisation of regional meetings with concerned states to develop frameworks and mechanisms to cooperate in the prevention and resolution of cases of missing migrants.

Areas in need of support

Good practices will continue to need to be collected, as will feedback from practitioners on the use of the documents. Such input will be incorporated into updated versions of the three documents.