The Committee on Enforced Disappearances today hosted an event at the Palais des Nations in Geneva to launch its first general comment on enforced disappearances in the context of migration.
Opening the event, Olivier de Frouville, Chair of the Committee, said that millions of migrants disappeared every year while trying to reach other countries. Rigid migration policies involving pushbacks, expulsions and detentions increased the risk of enforced disappearances. The event, he said, aimed to promote the content and implementation of the general comment. Enforced disappearance of migrants was a global issue requiring a global response, and the general comment could contribute to its understanding.
Volker Türk, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, delivering a keynote address, said too many people on the move suffered human rights violations; many died or disappeared every year. According to the International Organization for Migration, since 2015 at least 50,000 migrants had disappeared, and the actual figure was likely much higher. The general comment was highly relevant globally, Mr. Türk said, noting that if implemented, victims and relatives would gain better access justice systems. The general comment would also foster greater international cooperation. Mr. Türk encouraged all States to implement its recommendations as quickly as possible.
During the session, three panel discussions were held, the first presenting the general comment and expectations of its impact, the second discussing existing and future projects to promote implementation of the general comment, and the third promoting the general comment as a tool to encourage ratification of the Convention. Representatives of United Nations agencies, governments and civil society participated in discussions.
Summaries of the public meetings of the Committee can be found here, while webcasts of the public meetings can be found here. The programme of work of the Committee’s twenty-fifth session and other documents related to the session can be found here.
The Committee will next meet in public on Friday, 29 September at 5 p.m. to close its twenty-fifth session.
OLIVIER DE FROUVILLE, Chair, Committee on Enforced Disappearances, said that millions of migrants disappeared every year while trying to reach other countries. This was a large-scale phenomenon and quite tragic. According to a draft report of the International Labour Organization on missing persons, 69,000 migrants had disappeared since 2014, and many of these disappearances were enforced. This phenomenon was originally described by the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances in 2017. Specific measures needed to be taken to address the phenomenon. However, the topic remained marginalised in political discourse. Rigid migration policies involving pushbacks, expulsions and detentions increased risks for enforced disappearances. The Committee adopted the general comment last week. Today’s event aimed to promote the content and implementation of the general comment. States, civil society organisations, and academia and research institutions would share their points of view regarding the subject, and exchange opinions and best practices.
VOLKER TÜRK, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said too many people on the move suffered human right violations. Many died or disappeared every year. According to the International Organization for Migration, since 2015 at least 50,000 migrants had disappeared, and the actual figure was likely much higher. Significant numbers were enslaved or subject to other offences. Their disappearances were rarely reported. The lack of systematic data regarding missing migrants hindered the adoption of policies to address these crimes. The general comment was highly relevant globally. If implemented, victims and relatives would gain better access justice systems. The general comment would also foster greater international cooperation, as required by the Convention. Mr. Türk encouraged all States to implement the general comment’s recommendations as quickly as possible.
First Panel Presenting the General Comment and Expectations
MOHAMMED AYAT, Committee Expert and moderator of the first panel, said that for him, this was quite a memorable day, since a document of great importance was being presented. The general comment addressed a type of enforced disappearance that was unfortunately not well known, because it was hidden—enforced disappearance in the context of migration. He welcomed the tenacity and commitment of his two colleagues who worked on the document, Barbara Lochbihler and Milica Kolakovic-Bojovic. The document was also the work of all Committee members, who discussed it and offered their own suggestions for improvement. He further gave thanks to all those who had contributed to the document.
BARBARA LOCHBIHLER, Committee Expert, said that the Committee was deeply concerned by the growing trend of enforced disappearances in the context of migration. With the general comment, the Committee appealed to State parties to take urgent measures to prevent and respond to this phenomenon and to ensure full compliance with their legal obligations. The general comment aimed to assist State parties to develop and implement national policies to protect migrants from becoming victims of enforced disappearance and combat impunity. Further, it aimed to assist State parties to ensure victims’ access to justice. This was important for the migrants and their relatives, who often encountered obstacles and discrimination when searching for their disappeared loved ones. Also, the document addressed the often cross-border character of enforced disappearances in the context of migration and aimed to foster international and regional cooperation regarding the prevention, search and investigation of disappearances of migrants.
In April 2022, the Committee adopted a concept note outlining the issues, objectives and possible scope of the general comment. In the first phase of consultations, the Committee received written contributions by States, experts, international organisations, victims' and civil society organisations. In 2022, the Committee held four regional consultation meetings in Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia Pacific, Europe and Africa. During its twenty-fourth session, the Committee adopted its first draft of the general comment, and invited all interested stakeholders to provide inputs and comments on it. It received more than 100 inputs, which were carefully assessed and integrated into the text as much as possible. So, the general comment drew on the Committee’s experience in reviewing State parties’ report, the jurisprudence of human rights treaty bodies, the recommendations of the Human Rights Council and its special procedures and two rounds of consultations. She thanked all those who contributed to the general comment. The broad interest in the topic assured the Committee that enforced disappearances in the context of migration was an issue of global concern and needed to be addressed in the light of the Convention.
MILICA KOLAKOVIC-BOJOVIC, Committee Vice-Chair, said the general comment dealt in-depth with discrimination as a triggering factor for migration, and also reflected upon migrants’ exposure to various risks and reasons causing such risks. Special attention was given to strict border and migration policies as a risk factor. It was very important to make a clear distinction between migrants who went missing and those who were subjected to enforced disappearances. The general comment provided a set of measures that aimed to prevent enforced disappearance of migrants, including the prohibition of secret detentions and a related set of preventive procedural guarantees. The general comment also called on States to keep registries of persons deprived of liberty up to date, and to make them interconnected and interoperable. In many States, registries in prisons, migrant reception centres and medical institutions were not connected. Collecting statistical, properly disaggregated data on disappeared and deceased migrants was crucial. Frequently, it was difficult to get data on enforced disappearance from databases of missing persons, and even more difficult to identify migrant victims as a subcategory. The general comment included precise guidelines on how to collect, preserve, analyse and protect personal data. Improper handling the personal data could expose migrants and their family members to additional risks. The document further addressed the potential of new technologies in combating enforced disappearance of migrants.
The general comment promoted the principle of non-criminalisation of migrants and human rights defenders assisting them. It established a clear connection between trafficking and smuggling of migrants and patterns of enforced disappearance, providing a set of measures to additionally protect children. A very important section was dedicated to preventing refoulement and pushbacks through measures such as individual risk assessment. Pushbacks put migrants at great risk. The general comment recognised various harmful practices, such as destroying migrants’ mobile phones and other personal belongings or biometric documents, which prevented them from receiving assistance, leaving them in life threatening environments.
The general comment called on States to initiate investigations ex officio; provide mechanisms to report enforced disappearances, including using modern technologies; preserve border surveillance footage for searches and investigations; create centralised DNA databases with ante- and post-mortem information and DNA cross-matching; use information provided by relatives, civil society organisations and international organisations; and facilitate victims’ relatives’ participation in searches and investigations, and provide them with the right to obtain information about their loved ones. The final section of the general comment was dedicated to the strengthening of regional and international cooperation.
VINCENT CHETAIL, Geneva Academy, said that today, the international community was more aware of the phenomenon of enforced disappearance of migrants than ever before. It was important to distinguish between “missing migrants” and “migrants who suffered enforced disappearance”. The general comment focused on prevention of the phenomenon. It rightly underlined the need for human rights-based migration policies. The disappearance of migrants should be dealt with more transparent policies and measures. Today, the main issue was not the lack of international rules, but the poor record of implementation at the domestic level. Beyond pushbacks and a lack of training, the reasons for the gap were populism, politics and prejudices towards migrants. Safeguards for the human rights of migrants were limited in many States’ domestic legislation, which was not fully aligned with international norms. It was important to shed light on specific issues and addressing legal standards at domestic levels. These concerns were political in nature. The general comment asked for a human rights-based approach to migrants.
GABRIELA OVIEDO PERHAVEC, Centre for Justice and International Law, said that they celebrated the efforts of the Committee to publish the general comment, which would contribute to the reform of migration policies. There was a relationship between the criminalisation of migration and enforced disappearance. Practices such as pushbacks and restrictive migratory policies led to enforced disappearances. The general comment recognised the risks faced by migrants. Progress had been made in establishing trans-national mechanisms and exchanging information on the issue. Information needed to be shared quickly and automatically as soon as disappearances commenced. The lack of communication with migrants seeking asylum needed to be addressed. Registers of migrants could be beneficial, but should not be used to deny migrants’ refuge in various States.
IDRISSA SOW, Chair, Working Group on Death Penalty, Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings, African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, said enforced disappearance was a reality in Africa. However, the full scope of the phenomenon was unknown, and many African migrants were unaccounted for in the relevant statistics. The general comment was a step forward that had to be praised. Enforced disappearance could only be understood only in the context of the vulnerability of migrants. Migration crises, involving massive movements of people fleeing from war and disasters, were taking place. African migrants, refugees and asylum seekers were especially exposed to these risks, and to persecutions. National legislation should contribute to the implementation of the general comment. The general comment was an important tool for protecting and preserving the rights of persons in the process of migration.
Questions and Comments
A civil society representative from Central-North America said transnational data sharing in the Americas often led to migrants’ passage through certain States being blocked. States needed to respect the privacy of migrants’ data and ensure that it was used to protect migrants rather than inhibit their activities.
HORACIO RAVENNA, Committee Vice-Chair, asked about the differences between the mass migrations taking place in Americas and those taking place in Europe. How was their regulation different? How did regulatory differences affect migration in general?
MILICA KOLAKOVIC-BOJOVIC, Committee Vice-Chair, said that one of the Working Group’s biggest challenges was incorporating specific points within the general comment that addressed specificities in various regions and States. It was grateful to all stakeholders who had supported the reflection of those contexts in the general comment. These inputs had influenced the sections of the general comment on militarisation, pushbacks and non-refoulement.
BARBARA LOCHBIHLER, Committee Expert, said that in Europe, women and children fleeing the war in Ukraine could enter neighbouring countries without facing barriers. This was completely different to the situation in Syria. However, the Poland-Belarus border was just as hostile as the Panama-Colombia border. The authorities hindered humanitarian aid in that part of Europe.
Second Panel on the Existing and Future Projects to Promote the Implementation of the General Comment
CARMEN ROSA VILLA QUINTANA, Committee Expert and moderator of the second panel, said that the general comment was a clear answer to a concern affecting so many countries. What now needed to be considered was how the the document would be used. Its proper implementation required concerted efforts from many stakeholders.
A representative of OMAR ZNIBER, Permanent Representative of the Kingdom of Morocco to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that many thousands of migrants had been loss at sea. It was important to understand, prevent and combat enforced disappearance, and to document migrations. Insufficient registries, remote regions and other challenges hindered documentation. To prevent the phenomenon, Morocco coordinated and analysed statistical data. It was the only country in the region to have a guidance system for migrants and victims of the trafficking networks. Between 2008 and 2020, thousands of migrants were saved by Morocco. Chain pushbacks violated the provisions of the Conventions and contributed to dehumanisation. Migrants were discriminated against based on their origins and other characteristics. Morocco have gone from a country of emigration to a country of immigration. Migration had a positive effect on economic growth and innovation. The establishment of the African Migration Observatory was an important step towards harmonisation of migration policies in Africa. It was important that all States ratified the Convention. Fighting enforced disappearance was the shared duty of all States.
PATRICK EBA, Deputy Director, International Protection Division, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said 59,000 migrants had died or disappeared globally since 2015, a quarter of the population of Geneva. These deaths were a result of pushbacks and other harmful practices. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees welcomed the adoption of the general comment as a key tool for addressing the tragic, avoidable phenomenon. It was a reminder of the urgency to act. Political will was needed to strengthen the asylum and border protection system and create safe pathways for migrants. Three domains where the comment could benefit were in regulating migration by sea, immigration detention, and trafficking. The High Commissioner for Refugees had established a number of initiatives and an inter-agency mechanism to address the challenges surrounding enforced disappearance. Migrants, asylum seekers and refugees should be governed by different legal frameworks to ensure that responses took into account their particular situations. Such frameworks could help to save these peoples’ lives. The High Commissioner for Refugees was looking forward to disseminating the general comment and supporting its implementation.
FELIPE GONZÁLEZ MORALES, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, said the disappearance of people on the move was a tragic, widespread phenomenon, and domestic and international policies to address it were needed. Most cases were due to the policies of States. Pushbacks, mass migration, detention, xenophobic statements and hate speech all led to disappearance. There were no proper, regular avenues of migration in some regions, leading people to seek more dangerous routes, where they were at risk of disappearance or trafficking. States needed to collect proper data on migrants. When disappearances were reported, investigations needed to be launched immediately, and those responsible identified. If disappearances continued to happen and States did not take proper measures to address them, they would be held liable. Avoiding impunity was important, as was the role of civil society organisations in helping victims. The rights of the families of the disappeared needed to be recognised in domestic legislation.
ANA LORENA DELGADILLO PÉREZ, Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, said that the general comment was very detailed and comprehensive. The focus on migration was not coincidental, as thousands of migrants died every year. The Working Group in 2017 published an important study into the issue, which complemented the general comment. The principle of non-discrimination was a cornerstone of both documents. The fundamental rights of migrants should be respected in all countries. It was the obligation of all countries to produce human rights-based legislation and policies regarding migrations. Searches needed to be of broader scope and incorporate new technologies. She invited all countries to translate the general comment into local languages. It was a living document. It should be incorporated into all policies and projects focusing on victims.
MICHELA PUGLIESE, Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, said the organisation had observed a systematic pattern of the European Union overlooking the unlawful practices occurring in its Member States, which caused the deaths and disappearances of migrants, including physical pushbacks and detention in off-record secret facilities. The European Union needed to explicitly condemn the use of such illegal practices, which increased the risks of enforced disappearance for migrants; prohibit land and sea pushbacks and secret detention; and fulfil the obligation to ensure effective access to the asylum procedure. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency had been involved in hundreds of pushbacks in recent years, but both its budget and powers continued to grow alarmingly. The European Union persisted in providing financial and material support to border management projects in Turkey, Libya and Niger, despite their detrimental effect on migrants’ lives. Since the Central Mediterranean was both the main migratory route into the European Union and the world’s deadliest known migration route, the European Union should conduct contextual analysis on the structural failures of its migration and asylum system. The growing disappearance of migrants on their way to Europe, under the guise of border enforcement, was in fact racialised State violence. Migrants were subjected to enforced disappearances through a variety of tools designed to put them at risk and prevent their arrival. The Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor called on the European Union and countries to make enforced disappearance within Europe or through European complicity criminal under national law and punishable by appropriate penalties.
Questions and Comments
National Human Rights Council of the Kingdom of Morocco said that children were affected by the general comment. It could be good to work on a version of the document that focused on children.
Panama was a chair of a regional forum on migration, which was discussing many measures to tackle the phenomenon. Consular protection and coordination between various institutions were important in this regard.
HORACIO RAVENNA, Committee Vice-Chair, said there were various reasons for mass movements. How could States ensure that migrants in such movements were receiving fair treatment?
PATRICK EBA, Deputy Director, International Protection Division, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said that the High Commissioner for Refugees had proposed systems for registering and identifying refugees. However, it took States too long to determine who qualified for asylum. Processes needed to be implemented to grant protection much faster. How States applied these approaches was important and depended on political will.
Third Panel on the General Comment as a Tool to Further Foster the Ratification Process
SUELA JANINA, Committee Expert, said that promoting ratification of the Convention was one of the priorities of the general comment. Promoting the universal nature of the Convention was a priority for the Committee.
FRANCISCA E. MENDEZ ESCOBAR, Permanent Representative of Mexico to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said Mexico wanted States to endorse the Convention and strengthen bonds of cooperation. A lack of knowledge, violence, abuse, restrictive migration policies and prejudice placed migrants at greater risk. Comprehensive measures should be taken to prevent enforced disappearance. Legislation should be reviewed to address exploitation, disappearance, trafficking and other offences. Searches and investigations were also important. Better coordination among various stakeholders and States was needed. 98 States had signed the Convention, but only 72 had ratified it. The Convention was an invaluable tool within the human rights architecture. In 2020, Mexico acknowledged the competence of the Committee regarding urgent actions. They were the first country to hold a dialogue with the Committee and to receive a visit from them. These exchanges showed Mexico’s openness to international scrutiny. Since the visit, the State had engaged in institutional strengthening, reforming its General Law, establishing a national search system, adopting a national policy of forensic identification, and updating the national registry of disappeared persons. In December 2022, the national search system approved guidelines for inter-institutional cooperation. Migrants were also addressed in this context. Several mechanisms were established, such as roundtables and an inter-institutional working group addressing the search for missing persons.
GRAŻYNA BARANOWSKA, Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, said that ratification of the Convention was essential, as was acceptance of the urgent actions procedure of the Committee. The general comment explained how to apply the Convention in the context of migration. The Working Group promoted a humanitarian approach to asylum procedures. The general comment said that those detained should be able to communicate with anyone, regardless of the duration of detainment. Several asylum seekers who had disappeared had tried to reach the Working Group. State authorities needed to allow the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to contact detained asylum seekers. The Working Group had received many reports of pushbacks and other unfavourable practices. Migrants were less likely to be found than regular citizens, a fact that needed to be considered in relevant procedures. The Working Group had also conducted country visits twice per year, including to countries that were not parties to the Convention. These helped the Working Group to gain insight into local situations. Prevention measures were particularly important for migrants.
MILICA KOLAKOVIC-BOJOVIC, Committee Vice-Chair, said the general comment considered different legal culture, heritage, political backgrounds and traditions. Approaches needed to be tailored to specific regions and countries. Adoption of the general comment could give States a new perspective regarding ratification of the Convention. The general comment presented various contexts associated with enforced disappearances to push and motivate States to ratify the Convention. United Nations agencies’ regional and offices, civil society organisations and their networks could all communicate with different target groups to encourage implementation of the Convention. State parties that had ratified the Convention soon after its adoption could share good practices and knowledge with States that had newly ratified, and explain that implementing the Convention would be a benefit, rather than an additional reporting or implementing task.
BARBARA LOCHBIHLER, Committee Expert, said that within the European Union, many States had ratified the Convention, but some had only signed it. The general comment needed to be disseminated to those States. Some European regions did not want to establish policies on migrant protection. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency and other institutions were militarising borders. Feedback from Latin America, Eastern and Western European regions on the general comment was very specific and positive. In the Arab and Asia-Pacific regions, however, there were no regional organisations pushing for ratification of the Convention. Regional cooperation with the Asia-Pacific could be upgraded with the help of the Committee. The general comment’s recommendations needed to be taken seriously. Ms. Lochbihler expressed her support for subregional and regional policies addressing enforced disappearances.
MOHAMMED AYAT, Committee Expert, said that certain countries were considered to be transit countries but ended up being the final destination for many migrants. This was the case for Morocco. Many migrants were settling in Morocco, which was legalising their status. The Committee had great interested in Morocco’s migration policies.
FRANCISCA E. MENDEZ ESCOBAR, Permanent Representative of Mexico to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that there needed to be coordinated mechanisms to address enforced disappearance of migrants, a cross-cutting issue. The Convention needed to be ratified regardless of whether States had enforced disappearances or not. A campaign was needed to promote universal ratification. Regarding the sharing of best practices, Mexico had much experience and could host a workshop for other countries to exchange practices and views.
BARBARA LOCHBIHLER, Committee Expert, said States should seek the guidance of the International Organization for Migration and make concerted efforts to implement the Global Compact on Migration. Federal departments addressing human rights and migrations needed to work together more intensively.
MILICA KOLAKOVIC-BOJOVIC, Committee Vice-Chair, expressed support for a child-friendly and migrant-friendly approach to migration. Leaflets and various other publications should be published to familiarise migrants, including children, with the content of the general comment.
Morocco said that they were co-leading an initiative with El Salvador in the domain of the human rights of migrants.
OLIVIER DE FROUVILLE, Chair, Committee on Enforced Disappearances, thanked the two Committee Experts who had drafted the general comment and other colleagues who had contributed to it. He also thanked the States who had participated in the event, including co-panellists from Morocco and Mexico, who were pioneers in addressing enforced disappearance in the context of migration. He welcomed these States’ support and advocacy for the Convention. The exchange of good practices between States would be beneficial. No State could manage issues pertaining to migrations and human rights alone. The general comment converged with the Global Compact on Refugees. States had insufficient statistics on migrants and enforced disappearance. They needed to collect more statistics, and conduct more inquiries and investigations into the phenomenon. Placing people in detention should always be a last resort. Secret detention needed to be completely banned. Investigations were important for victims’ families, especially in more complex transnational contexts. States had the obligation to search for the missing migrants, regardless of whether they had ratified the Convention. However, all States should ratify the Convention. Migration was a global issue requiring a global response, and the general comment could contribute to its understanding.