Committee on Enforced Disappearances Launches General Comment on Enforced Disappearances in the Context of Migration
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.
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
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