The COVID-19 virus pandemic is affecting all countries of the world and does not discriminate as to its victims. Since December 2019 and the first identification of this novel coronavirus, thousands have died, hundreds of thousands have contracted the virus and millions have been placed in conditions of containment in attempts to restrict its spread and reduce casualties. States across the world have been increasing emergency measures to fight the virus and its grim consequences.
In the coming weeks there will be inevitably many more deaths irrespective of those measures and the suffering of individuals, their families and communities will be felt harshly. Many millions of people across the globe have travelled as refugees and undocumented migrants, many forcibly dispersed or making informal migration journeys. Living in camps and slum conditions, incarcerated, without status and access to the facilities and rights enjoyed by the settled community, all are exposed to a higher degree of risk. Where resources are already being stretched to breaking point those who are more invisible and on the margins of our societies and deliberately excluded by immigration policies will suffer a disproportionate impact in terms of access to material assistance, health care and their basic human rights. As others have already said, everyone in every society must be treated without discrimination in relation to the measures put in place to address this pandemic.
Assisting migrants to avoid and mitigate the virus is in the public interest of everyone.
This applies also to situations of death and bereavement.
The Last Rights Project, www.lastrights.net coordinated by the charity Methoria, is a global project which promotes the rights of bereaved missing and deceased migrants and calls on States and their agencies to act in accordance with well-established international human rights norms in establishing good practice in this regard. The Mytilini Declaration for the Dignified Treatment of all Missing and Deceased Persons and their Families as a Consequence of Migrant Journeys sets out the key principles and measures States and their agencies should take to ensure that respect for the dignity of the deceased and their bereaved families is met at all times and the practical steps needed to deliver these standards to all families.
We encourage all States to adopt and embody these principles and measures in their emergency work on the pandemic and especially in the context of the death and bereavement of migrants whilst outside their countries of origin.
It is imperative that where a migrant person dies as a result (directly or indirectly) of COVID-19, the responsible State takes all necessary steps to identify the deceased, preserve information and post-mortem data and store such data securely and with sufficient traceability to the deceased. In large scale tragedies where States may need to accelerate and attenuate normal funeral procedures and regulations, every effort must be made to preserve the identity and location of the deceased, their burial site and data, including DNA samples preserved that may be needed to trace and identify them to their families. GPS location markers should be allocated for each burial and individual record of death. Every effort must be made to find families where these are not immediately known, and to establish an independent system for families to be able to search for their loved ones. This must include also families searching for missing relatives as well those known to be deceased.
Where funerals attended by relatives cannot be held for public health reasons, such burials and services should be carried out in accordance with the culture and beliefs of the deceased where this is known and culturally appropriate burial sites established.
Every opportunity and assistance must be given to families to mourn their loved ones and in due course, once restrictions are lifted, to travel to the place of death, to receive their mortal remains and property and to facilitate repatriation and burials.
As with all members of society, refugees and migrants should have equal access to a transparent legal process of independent investigation, inquiry or inquest for ascertaining the cause(s) of death and be enabled to participate in those procedures. Emergency measures should not curtail such procedures.
It is imperative that all States immediately establish the necessary recording and data preservation systems to ensure that these basic human rights measures are fulfilled and that information is published to enable families, wherever they may be located to access information, in their own languages about tracing, mourning and representing their loved ones in death.
If this fails to be done, injustice will be added to the burden of grief and loss felt by families.
Co-Conveners – The Last Rights Project, a Methoria initiative
The authors are available for comment and further assistance by email at
There is an urgent need to understand how international law can be used to protect people’s rights in situations of border death and loss, to recognise the rights of families and to define states’ duties in clear, practical, implementable terms.
The movement of people, through forced, internal displacement and across international borders, is sadly part of everyday life and unlikely to reduce.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), millions attempting dangerous journeys are in need of international protection, fleeing war, violence and persecution. Many others crossing borders on ‘voluntary’ migrations risk their lives on dangerous journeys and suffer the same fate.
Every year these global cross-border movements continue to exact a devastating toll on human life both on land and at sea.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) Missing Migrants Project states that determining how many die or are killed is “a great challenge”, that, at a minimum, 46,000 migrants have lost their lives or have gone missing worldwide since 2000 and that the actual number is no doubt greater given the many who are never found. Reporting mechanisms on the African routes are lacking and the number of deaths on the Central American routes is largely undetermined. We also have very little idea of how many have perished in the Gulf of Aden, the Bay of Bengal or the Andaman Sea.
By 13 February 2018 at least 589 people are known to have died in the first two months of the year, 401 of those in the Mediterranean area. Many were women and children. Many more remain missing.
Tragically deaths will continue to occur, in particular when States and the international community as a whole fail to meet their moral and legal commitments.
Very many of those who have moved have fled war, conflict or persecution. Whilst some of the dead have been counted, many more are missing. The names of most of the dead and missing are not known; their families have not been traced, and where bodies have been found, they are often buried in unmarked graves. Families do not know if a missing relative – a parent, spouse, brother, sister or child – is alive or dead. As has been said by UN Special Rapporteur, Agnes Callamard, in her August 2017 report ‘Unlawful death of refugees and migrants’ “This represents one of the great untold tragedies of this catastrophe, one that triggers the responsibility of States to provide dignity and accountability in death.”
Procedures for how the dead should be recorded, their mortal remains identified, and families traced in situations of conflict are set out in international humanitarian law. Drawing on international human rights law, principles have been developed to protect the rights of the missing and their families in other situations of death and loss: enforced disappearance, internal displacement, and humanitarian disaster.
But attention has yet to be given to the legal duties of states to identify the dead, and to protect the rights of families in the context of refugee flight and irregular migration. It is important to clarify the steps states should take to investigate disappearances and deaths, identify those who die, provide a decent burial to the dead [whether or not they have been identified], and trace their families, including their children. It is also important to consider how and by whom data taken from bodies, and from families whose relatives are missing, should be held, and under what safeguards. This will involve a review of international law to ascertain how it should apply, to identify gaps in its provisions and propose measures to close those gaps, in the specific circumstances of refugee and migrant death and loss.
We believe there is a pressing need for principles, minimum standards and practical guidance, informed by international law, which we now propose in a new protocol, setting out the steps which states should reasonably be expected to take to record the missing, recover, preserve, and identify the dead; to collect and retain appropriate data to facilitate future identification; to enable repatriation or decent and dignified burial and to respect the rights of family members, including their right to know the fate of relatives who are missing or who have died. The aim of the Protocol is to assist states, civil society, and others, including those working in the field, to respond to these tragedies in ways which respect human rights and human dignity.
These international guiding principles will draw on experience and knowledge gained from events arising in the course of the current refugee and migrant flows across the Mediterranean region and also upon the experience and knowledge of other human rights organisations across the world in regions such as Central and Southern America, Africa and Australia, as well as garnering better understanding of identification and recovery work from other non-migration traumatic events in places such as Argentina, Japan and Ukraine.
It is intended that these guidelines will have a wide reach internationally and act as a catalyst for action, including by human rights organisations which have not been engaged with these issues to date.
On the 11 May 2018, following two days of discussions between experts from across the world, the Mytilini Declaration was agreed. We believe this is a landmark in establishing the rights of and duties toward all those who experience suffering because of the death or disappearance of their loved ones as a result of migrant journeys and we now call upon all countries and international bodies to ensure that these rights are respected and that the standards contained in the Declaration are implemented as a matter of urgency.
Here are the Greek, French, German, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish and Italian language versions. The English language version is the version that was agreed at the expert drafting meeting and prevails in the event of any differences arising.
The Last Rights Project is grateful to all the donors and sponsors who have made this ground-breaking work possible.