Already more than 500 people have lost their lives trying to migrate from Africa to Europe this year. The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) is working on the practical issues of accounting for those who are missing. In meetings this month in The Hague with frontline European states – Cyprus, Italy, Malta and Greece – the organisation is looking at how to help those states to help refugees, migrants and the displaced to find their missing relatives.The International Criminal Court (ICC) may get involved too – there’s an ongoing attempt to challenge the EU’s migration policy at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the ICC prosecutor has spoken about targeting people-smuggling gangs as part of her work on Libya. Justice Hub spoke with Alistair Burt, a former UK minister for the Middle East and the current UK ICMP Commissioner about what ICMP is aiming to achieve in this complex environment:
Alistair Burt: It’s encouraging states to recognize they’ve got to work together, and that the set of rules that they can put together will pay many dividends. The broader point is that none of this is going away. Accounting for the missing is an investment in peace. Addressing the issue in a manner that explicitly strengthens the rule of law is really important. Post-conflict you’re looking to build up governance institutions and rule of law. Helping refugees, migrants and the displaced to find missing relatives can lay the ground for future return and encouraging States to recognize their obligation to investigate the fate and whereabouts of missing persons is really Important. This joint process of the four states is a key part of it. There are a lot of technical things involved in migration. There is a legal aspect to this: encouraging and supporting countries in finding their way around the law, working with forensics, working to gathering information and the security of information is all very important.
Pleased to be in The Hague @TheICMP as UK Commissioner discussing plight of the missing and the need for coordinated international action to tackle the many issues connected with them, recently highlighted in @UN SCR 2474 pic.twitter.com/96VtvfgIH6
— Alistair Burt (@AlistairBurtUK) June 14, 2019
Justice Hub: What role does ICMP play?
Alistair Burt: The human cost of migration through the Mediterranean I think is reasonably well known. More than 31,000 migrants are reported to have died or have gone missing since the beginning of 2014 of whom 18,500 were lost on the Mediterranean route. 2300 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2018. Some 500 have died in the first five months of this year. The human cost of migration is huge. What ICMP does, by focusing on the importance of finding answers to the families that have lost people, is to help states with the structures they need in order to deal with this. There is a legal obligation to do so.
Justice Hub: What kind of obligation?
Alistair Burt: There’s an obligation on states to find out what has happened to the missing. The states that are involved: the countries of origin, destination countries, transit countries and countries of departure, have a legal obligation to investigate what may have happened to them and to bring people to justice if they’ve been involved in trafficking.
What ICMP has built up over the years, as was proved most successfully in the prosecutions in relation to the Balkan crisis and the massacre at Srebrenica, is that by being able to identify those who have died and where they have died, you can often provide clues as to how people have died and if there has been an illegality you’re able to deal with that.
ICMP has built up information in relation to forensics and has also built up a structure of being able to handle confidential data. Often when people have gone missing and you’re trying to identify if a body has been found who they might be, you have to get biological samples from people. You’ve got to get data.
In some countries, the transmission of data is a dangerous thing. You want to know what authority has got access to such data. We are well aware that in the regions where people are fleeing from, there are often ethnic and sectarian issues. There are often unresolved issues of conflict that have caused people to flee.
ICMP has therefore built up a confidential security network. We understand that trying to encourage people to trust those who are handling data is really important because unless you have the database you can’t identify people and the process falls down.
There is a further aspect to this. As well as the humanitarian obligation of finding out what has happened to those who have gone missing and the potential for prosecution if people have been involved in illegal activity, there is also the sense that this is an investment in peace. It’s really important to find out what’s happened to people because it gives a sense of security. It can often help in the process of returning people to areas because there’s greater certainty about it.
The establishment of principles and working with the four states, Malta, Cyprus, Italy and Greece, that took part in the meeting has been a key part of that.
Justice Hub: What kinds of prosecutions could come out of this work?
Alistair Burt: Prosecutions can take place anywhere where a crime has been committed. In trying to deal with the networks that are running people, yes if the information is available in states where crimes have been committed. But that information won’t just come through this sort of work. This is only part of it. Breaking down the criminal networks, in the well-worn phrase, is all about following the money. I have supported the work of ICMP for many years since its origin in the Balkans and the extraordinary work of identifying the victims of Srebrenica. I have seen the families where closure to a degree has been given because they have known what has happened and of course prosecutions followed there.
The migration situation is getting worse and establishing good networks of information is really helpful. This joint process which helps to account for the missing in the Mediterranean I suspect is going to be well used in years to come.
Justice Hub: People trying to help the migrants to arrive safely in Europe by running ships have been under a lot of pressure from different countries and told that what they’re doing is illegal. It feels as if you are expecting states to help with finding out where the bodies are but in fact, they still don’t want to let migrants into Europe.
Alistair Burt: You pose an issue that’s at the heart of the difficulty. Europe is faced with a movement of peoples that it hasn’t seen since the end of World War II. Whereas migration in other parts of the world has been more common, the recent movement of people is as a result of crises in the Middle East. In Syria, for example, the displacement of people is as a result of the appalling atrocities where half the population has moved either internally or externally. Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt have taken a number of refugees.
What we are finding, of course, is that in the modern world people are not going to be content to live for generations in refugee camps. Everyone has got a phone. Everyone knows that it’s better somewhere else and they’re just going to move. Accordingly, that then gives rise to criminal activity. The European Union is caught in this trap. It does not want to provide a pull factor because the traffickers are very skilled and if they know that if someone sets foot in a European Union country it’s very difficult for them to return, that is what they sell. They even use unaccompanied children.
The United Kingdom, for its part, has always been very clear that there is an obligation to rescue. But of course, there is then the issue of where people are taken after they are rescued. In Libya, we have seen of course the tragedies of people being returned to these detention camps. Much as we work with Libyan authorities, the rule of law there is under severe pressure. There can be no equivocation on the obligation to save people at risk of death. Once that has been achieved then I think Europe has to work in a partnership to deal with those who have been rescued. But a process clearly needs to be there to make sure there are legal avenues rather than illegal avenues to migration because Europe simply cannot be in a position where anyone who moves at any time ends up in Europe. We’ve seen the social pressures so that’s not going to work. We must devise something else and that’s why international cooperation is necessary.
Justice Hub: What does the concept of justice mean to you in this context?
Alistair Burt: First I would ask what injustice is making people move. Are they moving because of conflict? For example, the Syrian Civil War is being conducted by Assad against his own people lied with others. There is an injustice there in the first place. Is there an injustice in relation to poverty that will cause people to move? That’s rather more balanced. There have always been people who’ve moved and sent remittances back home as part of the economic ebb and flow that we know very well. There is also climate change, which is driving people out because they can’t find a living. Desertification in parts of the Maghreb will likely increase. You have that as the broader concept of justice.
But then there is the real illegality, the trafficking and the criminal activity and the cruelties that we’ve seen. That really must be the first target of any mechanism for justice. But no one should be under any illusions. This is not a casual trade done by people, in a British idiom, to ‘pick up a few bob’. This is mass criminal activity. This money is often used to finance other things like violent criminal gangs. It almost needs state action to end it because people will kill to protect their investments and everything else. Trials will only be possible when people have taken significant action through an investigatory process that I suspect is still incredibly difficult.
Ultimately I see a sense of justice if criminal actions have taken place and lives have been lost and lives have been threatened. It is unjust for that simply to be glossed over. ICMP is part of a network that will assist in finding redress for that as it has done up to now in other places.