Tuesday, 10 March 2015

International Organization for Migration (IOM) hosts panel on identifying missing migrants, helping families find closure

Last year over 5,000 people lost their lives while migrating. This year, the number is already over 600 – a huge increase from this time last year, when numbers were only around 100. Nearly 500 of this year’s fatalities remain unidentified, reports IOM’s Missing Migrants Project.

Indeed, across the planet, wherever migrants face danger and death, the identities of people who are found dead or are reported missing remain, in most cases, unknown. Authorities generally give little priority to collecting data on missing migrants.

To raise awareness of this growing problem, and as part of IOM’s global effort to report on migrant fatalities, IOM is today organizing an international conference in Geneva, bringing together practitioners and experts to share information and develop priorities for action.

Migrant Fatalities: Identification, Tracing and Family Support, will take place today from 2:00 PM to 5:30 PM at IOM’s Geneva HQ.

The event, which will be opened by IOM Director General William Lacy Swing, will feature experts from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Commission of Missing Persons (ICMP), the University Amsterdam, the Laboratory of Anthropology and Forensic Odontology at the University of Milan, and the European Border Deaths Research Network.

“When the tsunami hit South East Asia in 2004, the whole world was mobilized to help recover and identify the victims, despite their enormous numbers,” said Dr. Frank Laczko, Director of IOM’s Migration Research Division. “Missing migrants receive much less attention.”

Even following the highly publicized sinking within sight of Italy’s Lampedusa Island in October 2013, the majority of the 366 victims remain unidentified more than a year later. Not only are recovered bodies frequently not identified, but when deaths occur at sea, often bodies are never found, noted Dr. Laczko.

Identifying the missing is not an easy task, given that many migrants travel without documentation. As a result, tens of thousands of family members endure great suffering not knowing whether a loved one is dead or alive. In a sense the families experience a “double tragedy” – not only a death in the family, but also the inability to mourn properly, not knowing where a loved one may be buried or the circumstances of his or her death.

Research has shown the devastating effects this situation has on families, affecting psychological well-being, family dynamics and social relations, the family’s economic situation, as well as processes like inheritance, remarriage, and guardianship of children. The families of the missing have a right to know the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones – a right recognized both by international humanitarian law and human rights law.

Families trying to establish what happened to missing relatives may face bureaucratic red tape, finding it difficult to access reliable information about their loved ones.

There is no established common practice for collecting information on migrant deaths between nations, or even sometimes between different jurisdictions within a single country. The technical skills needed for identification exist, but there is not yet an international framework establishing what information should be collected, and how it should be shared.

In Europe there is no centralized system for identifying the bodies of migrants, nor is there a systematic method for informing their families in origin countries. There is no shared database in individual European states or regionally that compiles all information on missing migrants.

When bodies are not recovered and no DNA sample can be taken or other identifying information obtained, the task of helping family members locate missing loved ones is even more challenging.

In Europe, a major impediment remains the lack of any mechanism to link post-mortem data from European countries where dead migrants are found with ante-mortem data from their countries of origin all over the world.

When a body is found, although a DNA sample may be taken, it must be matched with DNA from a family member in order to establish identity. Not knowing who these family members may be often makes this impossible.

When shipwrecks occurs, IOM – which works in Southern Italy under the framework of the Praesidium project alongside UNHCR, Save The Children and Italian Red Cross – assists Italian authorities in verifying whether there are missing migrants, trying, when possible, to gather information based on survivors’ testimonies.

There is also a need to better train national authorities – for instance, coast guards – to respond when bodies are retrieved. Ad hoc and uncoordinated processes of collecting, recording and preserving data taken from an unidentified body obstruct processes of identification. Partner agencies such as the ICRC and ICMP also offer scope to better assist families of the missing in origin and destination countries and to ensure dignified burial and marking of graves.

This is not solely a European problem. Since 1998, more than 6,500 people have died attempting to cross the US-Mexico border. It is estimated that a third of these have not been identified, and the families of the missing continue to search for answers.

Today’s seminar will compare approaches and experiences in the United States and Europe. From the United States, Robin Reineke, Co-founder and Executive Director of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, based in Tucson Arizona, will discuss the organization’s work to link family members with missing loved ones along the border between Mexico and the United States.

The Center assists families in their search by collecting detailed missing persons reports and working with forensic scientists to help identify the dead recovered along the border between Mexico and the United States. An estimated 2,000 people have been reported as missing along this border since the organization began compiling data in the year 2000.

For more on IOM’s Missing Migrants Project please go to: http://missingmigrants.iom.int/

Case study

The Colibrí Center’s Reineke reported on the case of a missing Guatemalan migrant, Felix, who last spoke to his family from Mexico in July 2009. A few days later, his wife received a call from his coyote, or professional smuggler, explaining that Felix had collapsed in the desert and was left near a road frequented by the US Border Patrol units.

In 2011, staff from Colibrí took detailed information about Felix from his wife, distraught after two years of not knowing what had happened to her husband. In cases like this, the anguish can be excruciating. Relatives of the missing don’t know where to go for help. Some families call dozens of offices, and rarely have their calls returned. Some calls that do come are from mysterious people claiming to have the person, willing to release them only after thousands of dollars have been wired to them. Other calls come from private investigators, promising to unearth hidden information—again for a price.

In Felix’s case, when records of unidentified remains found in Arizona were searched against his information, the match was relatively easy to make. A man found near Choulic, Arizona, on July 9, 2009, fit the missing migrant’s description. His widow was sent a facial photograph of the decedent, and she confirmed the identity.

Although his photo had been taken the day after Felix died, a number of factors prevented his widow from having this information until 2011. Due to fear, families usually do not report such cases to the police. Instead, these cases are reported to consulates, human rights groups, and others, many of whom have inconsistent access to data about unidentified remains. The Colibrí Center for Human Rights is working to bridge this gap, so that families like Felix’s will have answers sooner.

Tuesday 10 March 2015


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Ebola could be spread by victims even a week after death

Ebola can be contracted by people who come into contact with the body of someone who died from the disease up to a week before, according to a study conducted by researchers from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases in early February. The researchers collected viable virus samples from Ebola-infected monkeys that had been dead for seven days, and non-infectious RNA for up to 70 days.

The study helps reinforce the need for safe handling of the remains of Ebola victims — a practice considered essential in stemming the ongoing outbreak in West Africa.

The researchers infected five macaque monkeys with Ebola, then euthanized them once they began showing symptoms. The monkeys’ bodies were then placed in a special chamber designed to simulate the environmental conditions of West Africa. The chamber was “like a big deli fridge where you can manipulate the temperature and humidity,” co-lead author Vincent J. Munster said.

The bodies were left in the chambers for 10 weeks. Periodically, the researchers collected tissue samples from seven different bodily surfaces and four internal organs. These samples were tested for both live virus and for traces of RNA, which forms the virus’s genetic code.

“We’re wearing positive pressure suits,” Munster said. “We’re not breathing the air from the same room. If we could smell the corpses, there’s a chance we could be infected.”

The scientists found live virus on the bodies’ surfaces up to seven days after death. Traces of RNA, which were not capable of transmitting the disease, were found for up to 10 times as long.

According to the World Health Organization, funeral customs involving contact with bodies has been a major factor fueling the spread of Ebola across West Africa. Safe handling of an Ebola-infected body requires that all handlers be dressed in full protective gear, and that the body be sprayed with bleach, bagged, and then either cremated or deeply buried. More recent funerals in Ebola outbreak regions have allowed the display of bodies, but no one has been permitted to touch them.

The researchers noted that, due to the risk of contagion and the prevalence of Ebola samples throughout the monkeys’ bodies, health workers might be able to use oral swabbing as a faster, safer way to collect samples to test people for Ebola.

Just days after the new study’s release, World Health Organization head Bruce Aylward warned that the recent drop in Ebola cases has leveled off, raising concern that the outbreak may not yet be beaten.

“It’s what keeps me up at night right now,” Aylward said. “This is not what you want to see with Ebola.”

A sustained effort to implement safe burials and safe treatment protocols led to a large drop in new Ebola cases over the past few months. Health officials have warned that the outbreak will not be stemmed, however, until a comparable effort is made to trace the contacts of infected people in order to identify all new cases early.

So far, the ongoing outbreak has sickened nearly 24,000 people and killed over 9,800, according to WHO statistics.

At around the same time as Aylward’s warning, a team of Ebola researchers published a paper in the journal mBio warning that limited airborne transmission of Ebola has already “very likely” happened. The vast majority of transmission has undoubtedly been through close contact with bodies or bodily fluids, they emphasized, but they warned that it is dangerous to assume that we know more about Ebola than we actually do.

“Important policies and biosafety regulations must be evidence-based, not [by] using opinions and beliefs as guiding principles,” said co-author Gary P. Kobinger of Canada’s Public Health Agency.

Tuesday 10 March 2015


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Argentina to recover remains of French athletes from helicopter crash

Argentine recovery teams arrived on Tuesday at the site of a helicopter collision to recover the bodies of 10 people, including French sports stars participating in a reality TV show.

Aviation experts made it to the crash site in a mountainous area northwest of Buenos Aires in the early hours, said Judge Virginia Illanes Bordon.

"In a short while we will begin the task of recovery of the bodies," she told TN News.

News of the crash and the loss of star athletes cast France into mourning.

Among those aboard the helicopters and presumed dead were champion sailor Florence Arthaud, Olympic gold medalist swimmer Camille Muffat and Olympic boxer Alexis Vastine.

They were taking part in the filming of the survival series "Dropped" when two helicopters collided in mid-air, apparently while filming the show near the town of Villa Castilla in Argentina's La Rioja province.

Eight French nationals and the two Argentine pilots were killed, a police source said.

Provincial spokesman Horacio Alarcon said the weather conditions were good and the cause of the crash was unknown.

The provincial government later said they included Arthaud, 57, Muffat, 25, and Vastine, 28.

The series, which was to air on French television channel TF1, involved eight athletes being dropped into inhospitable environments for an adventure- and survival-themed reality show.

The provincial government said a cast and crew of around 80 people, mostly French nationals, had descended on the area in recent days to film the series.

Shooting began in late February in Ushuaia, at the southern tip of South America in the glacial landscape of Patagonia.

It then moved to La Rioja, whose scenic mountain landscapes are popular with tourists. The place where the crash occurred is around 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) north of Buenos Aires.

Police and firefighters were still working to recover the victims' bodies when night fell, using floodlights to illuminate the area, a police source told AFP.

Officials from the air force, which is in charge of investigating air accidents in Argentina, were en route to the scene. "It's been four hours since the collision and (the wreckage) is still on fire. There's smoke rising from the helicopters," said a police source at the scene.

Tuesday 10 March 2015


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More corruption means more deaths from disasters – study

The higher the levels of corruption are in a country, the more casualties it tends to have from natural disasters, a recently released study said.

Unfortunately for the Philippines, it is among 10 countries deemed at "extreme risk" in the Corruption Risk Index 2015 indicated in a study by risk analysis firm Verisk Maplecroft.

"The loss of life associated with natural disasters is higher in countries with higher levels of corruption. Corruption can lead to ineffectively enforced regulation, which can be a significant threat in areas highly exposed to natural hazards," said the analysis of the study obtained by Rappler.

The Philippines is joined in the list by other fast-growing economies like Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India and Vietnam.

Ironically, these corruption-prone countries have experienced 3 times more natural disasters than countries with more honest public officials since 1990.

They have faced 5,409 natural disasters compared with 1,889 disasters withstood by countries considered as "low risk" and "medium risk" in the corruption index.

Corruption levels and casualties from disasters are linked, asserted the study.

The countries with high corruption levels suffered an average of 242 fatalities per disaster, while countries with less corruption suffered 21 deaths per disaster.

"Corruption can strongly influence the outcome of natural hazard disasters, by hindering preparation for and response to natural hazard events…By reducing levels of corruption building standards and land regulation are likely to improve, which would lower the humanitarian impacts of natural hazard events," said the analysis.

The country, besieged by corruption scandals almost as frequently as typhoons, is particularly at risk.

"Corruption is entrenched in the country, reflected by a series of high-profile graft scandals in 2014. A lack of accountability and transparency in the allocation of public funds impedes the rate of development and undermines public confidence in government institutions, slowing efforts to build capacity to manage disaster risk effectively," read the study.

Another indicator is how strong economic development in the last decade has not trickled down to the poorest – and often the most disaster-vulnerable – communities.

Despite strides in GDP growth and upgrades in investment ranking, 25% of the population continue to live below the poverty line.

The poor are often not equipped to deal with disaster events that follow one after the other, making it harder to lift them out of poverty.

Corruption punches holes into a country's ability to rise above a disaster by undermining specific policies and programs vital to a robust disaster resilience program.

For one thing, corruption hinders the collection and management of information that could help the government target the most affected populations.

Corruption also tends to get in the way of the implementation of land use planning – critical to ensuring communities are far away from disaster-prone areas.

Building codes and quality of infrastructure are also at the mercy of dishonest practices by both government officials and the private sector.

Poor building standards and fragile infrastructure that result from such practices lead to higher numbers of casualties, according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).

True enough, those countries considered at "extreme risk" in the Corruption Risk Index garnered a score of 4.45 out of 10 in Maplecroft's Infrastructure Fragility Index. In contrast, countries with less corruption scored 8.28 out of 10 in infrastructure.

Despite the gloomy results, the study said the Philippines, along with Sri Lanka, demonstrated the greatest improvements in resilience in recent years.

The widely-criticized government response to Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) in 2013 may have been a catalyst for these gains.

The Maplecroft study cited the government response to Typhoon Ruby (international name Hagupit) last December.

"With a death toll of just 19 people, improved steps in disaster risk management process included better communication and the evacuation of over 1 million people," it said.

To keep this up, the Philippines should make sure disaster risk reduction management is mainstreamed into its other development programs.

This will ensure more sustainable economic growth that can easily bounce back after a natural disaster.

There are ways the government can make sure economic growth leads to greater resilience, said the study.

It recommends the construction of better-quality infrastructure, the implementation of more rigorous building standards, a campaign against corruption and poverty-alleviation programs.

Tuesday 10 March 2015


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