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The IOM’s Missing Migrants Project: The Global Authority on Border Deaths

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The International Organization for Migration


The tragic shipwreck off the island of Lampedusa on 3 October 2013 spurred the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to take up the issue of border deaths by setting up the Missing Migrants Project (MMP), which compiles and monitors data on border deaths worldwide. By the summer of 2015, the project was online and increasingly cited as the source of data on border deaths. This chapter provides a critical analysis of the MMP and the IOM’s emergence as an authority on border deaths. It argues that taking up the issue of border deaths and incorporating it into the main tasks of the IOM’s new Global Migration Data Analysis Centre, as well as IOM Country Offices, has aided the IOM in presenting itself as both a technical and humanitarian actor. This has helped the IOM in gaining political legitimacy and in strengthening its position as the leading global player in the field of migration and border management. The chapter aims, firstly, to raise the question of how the MMP, while not being an official death count, has become a leading authority on border death data. Secondly, the chapter asks how the IOM presented the MMP to the public and stakeholders. Thirdly, the chapter critically analyses the IOM’s ‘neutral’ politics of counting.

Paolo Cuttitta’s and Tamara Last’s contribution to this chapter was carried out as part of the research project ‘Border Policies and Sovereignty: Human Rights

and the Right to Life of Irregular Migrants’ led by Thomas Spijkerboer and funded by the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (NWO) through a VICI grant (number 453-12-004). The authors would like to thank Theodore Baird for useful comments and suggestions.

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  1. 1.

    Tamara Last was the co-author of the Mediterranean chapter of the first Fatal Journeys report edited by the IOM and an invited expert at the first, second, and fourth workshops on deceased migrants convened by the IOM.

  2. 2.

    Framing refers to the use of a discourse which ‘names, interprets, and dramatizes’ particular social issues (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998, 897). Frames are mobilised through persuasive forms of communication in order to achieve certain ends. Framing is considered ‘an essential component of norm entrepreneurs’ political strategies, since, when they are successful, the new frames resonate with broader public understandings and are adopted as new ways of talking about and understanding issues’ (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998, 897). Actors resort to frames to secure their own interests or maintain a powerful status (Payne 2001).

  3. 3.

    Interview with Tara Brian (Research Officer at the IOM Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa, Cairo, formerly at the IOM Migration Research Division, Geneva), Skype, 6 July 2017.

  4. 4.

    Interview with Tara Brian, Skype, 6 July 2017.

  5. 5.

    E-mail Frank Laczko (Head of the IOM Migration Research Division), 4 February 2015.

  6. 6.

    Interview with Tara Brian, Skype, 6 July 2017.

  7. 7.

    Ninety-seven per cent of the IOM’s budget relies on projects financed by its member states (Lavenex 2016, 558). See also Wunderlich (2012, 496).

  8. 8.

    One of the objectives of IOM staff working on the MMP was to expand the sources of death data from a dependence on news reports. To this end, an internal reporting mechanism for dead and missing migrants was established between IOM Country Offices and IOM’s MRD (now GMDAC). However, the mechanism was rarely used by IOM Country Office staff and, when it was, their original sources of information was also (local) news reports (Interview with Tara Brian, Skype, 6 July 2017).

  9. 9.

    A few years before IOM, UNHCR staff decided to keep track of deaths by tallying casualties reported in the news. The collected data are for internal use only. The only death data that UNHCR shares with the public are aggregated counts and the occasional statistic in its press releases and reports. IOM and UNHCRexchangedata to test consistency. The coordination with UNHCR began with the creation of GMDAC in September 2015 after they noticed the variation in their numbers reported for 2014. Weekly informal consultations were established between GMDAC staff working on the MMP and UNHCR staff keeping track of death statistics. This exchange is not consistent; for instance, cooperation was suspended for a few months over the summer of 2017 (personal communications with Julia Black, MMP Project Coordinator, 29 September and 30 November 2017).

  10. 10.

    The Global Migration Data Portal ‘serve[s] as a unique access point to timely, comprehensive migration statistics and reliable information about migration data globally’ and claims not only to provide data but to help the public, policymakers, and journalists to explain and navigate information about migration. See:

  11. 11.

    The first pilot versions of the interactive online platform of the MMP were launched in September 2014.

  12. 12.

    Interview with Tara Brian, Skype, 6 July 2017.

  13. 13.

    For an overview on use and sources of border death data in academic literature, see Last and Harte (2018).

  14. 14.

    MMP staff often write the substantive texts of press releases that MCD distribute. The number of press releases citing MMP was counted by searching for ‘MMP’ and ‘Missing Migrants Project’ and then filtering the results by selecting ‘press releases’. The results were reviewed to ensure they made reference to the MMP.

  15. 15.

    The second was published two years later (Brian and Laczko 2016), while the first part of the third volume appeared in September 2017.

  16. 16.

    The first data point in the database of the Missing Migrants Project dates from 6 January 2014. The database is available at

  17. 17.

    Interview with Tara Brian, Skype, 6 July 2017. Notes from the meeting by Tamara Last.

  18. 18.

    Paolo Cuttitta and Tamara Last co-hosted the VU meeting.

  19. 19.

    No IOM representative attended this first event. ICRC organised a second meeting in October 2015, at which the IOM was represented by Tara Brian. Tamara Last was an observer at both ICRC meetings.

  20. 20.

    E-mail Frank Laczko, 4 February 2015.

  21. 21.

    Along the same line, the IOM’s attempt to put the issue of border deaths on the agendas of countries of origin and transit can also be seen as a move aimed at strengthening the IOM’s role on the global scene through the appropriation of the issue of border deaths. While border deaths have been discursively appropriated by destination countries (Cuttitta 2018b) as part of the ‘humanitarianization’ of the border (Walters 2011), these countries are now trying to export this issue to countries of origin and transit, as part of the broader process of externalization (Zaiotti 2016) of migration and border management. The IOM has long been an essential instrument for the implementation of the externalization policies of rich destination countries to countries of origin and transit (Lavenex 2016; Wunderlich 2012). The IOM, for example, is helping the Libyan authorities with both capacity building in search and rescue (SAR) and offering technical assistance after SAR operations (IOM 2016b). Assistance to improve SAR capabilities has long been offered to the Egyptian authorities as well, although these have not been accepted so far (Interview with IOM officer, Cairo, 1 March 2017). In Niger, the IOM is carrying out ‘search and rescue missions’ in the desert with the local state authorities (IOM 2017a). Border deaths and SAR have become such an important issue for donor states that ‘at some point, we started using it to justify our request for funding for our project proposals, even when the original aim of the project was not specifically related to search and rescue’ (Interview with IOM officer, Tunis, 8 February 2016).

  22. 22.;

  23. 23.

    Systematic cooperation with IOM Country Offices in data collection and verification now exists in some Mediterranean countries, such as Turkey, Greece, Italy, Libya, and Tunisia (interview with Tara Brian, Skype, 6 July 2017; personal communications with Julia Black, 29 September and 30 November 2017).

  24. 24.;

  25. 25.

  26. 26.

    In November 2018, the Associated Press published their own tally of migrants dead or missing worldwide from 2014 to 2018 (Hinnant and Janssen 2018). They presented their tally as ‘almost double the number found in the world’s only official attempt to try to count them, by the UN’s International Organization for Migration’, demonstrating not only the perception that MMP generates official statistics but also that they are the main competition for emerging data collectors.

  27. 27.

    ‘Methodology’, Missing Migrants Project,

  28. 28.

    See Spijkerboer (2007, 2017) on how this assumption may be challenged.

  29. 29.

    Interview with Tara Brian, Skype, 6 July 2017.

  30. 30.

    The spectacle of border deaths data mentioned by Heller is reflected in the IOM’s use of hashtags to spread the fatality figures while simultaneously popularising the IOM brand.

  31. 31.

    Interview with Tara Brian, Skype, 6 July 2017.

  32. 32.

    Research has shown that, while some irregularised travellers are unaware of the extent of border deaths (Squire et al. 2017, 36), the majority is well aware of the risks of irregular journeys (Crawley et al. 2016, 52–54; Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat 2014, 83).

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Al Tamimi, Y., Cuttitta, P., Last, T. (2020). The IOM’s Missing Migrants Project: The Global Authority on Border Deaths. In: Geiger, M., Pécoud, A. (eds) The International Organization for Migration. International Political Economy Series. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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