Berlin – The number of migrants who died crossing the United States-Mexico border in 2017 remained high, despite a 44 per cent decrease in border apprehensions reported by the US Border Patrol between 2016 and 2017.
In 2017, 412 migrant deaths were recorded compared to 398 in 2016, according to IOM, the UN Migration Agency. This data was compiled by IOM’s Missing Migrants Project based in Berlin.
“The increase in deaths is especially concerning, as the available data indicate that far fewer migrants entered the US via its border with Mexico in the last year,” said Frank Laczko, Director of IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre, which collects the data for the Missing Migrants Project.
The US Border Patrol reported 341,084 migrant apprehensions on the southwestern border of the United States in 2017, compared to 611,689 apprehensions in 2016.
As the likelihood of arrest grows, migrants tend to seek out more remote routes to avoid apprehension. The prolonged exposure to the extreme environments at the border, where temperatures often top 40°C (104°F), combined with the difficulty of bringing assistance those in need in remote areas have repeatedly been cited as leading causes of death.
Texas, where 191 migrant deaths were recorded in the last year, is a particular area of concern. The 2017 total represents a 26 per cent increase over the 151 fatalities recorded in Texas in 2016.
IOM’s office in Mexico reports this is due, in part, to heavy rainfall in early 2017, which made crossing the border into Texas more difficult as the Rio Grande flowed faster and deeper. However, no similar explanation has emerged for the increase in migrant deaths in other areas along the border.
In July 2017, the tragedy of ten migrants who died while trapped in the back of a tractor-trailer in a parking lot in Texas received widespread media coverage. Yet most deaths recorded in the border region occur in relatively low numbers. Those deaths, recorded almost daily during summer months, rarely make headlines beyond the victims’ home communities.
Though data on migrant fatalities on the US-Mexico border are more accessible than in many other regions of the world, they remain incomplete. For example, the number of deaths reported by the US Border Patrol, includes only those which agents deal with directly. “This means that federally reported figures could seriously underestimate the real number of deaths,” said Julia Black, data collection coordinator for the Missing Migrants project.
Official data on migrant deaths on the border are highly fragmented, and information must be collected from local authorities. Because many bodies are difficult to identify due to severe decomposition and a lack of identifying documents, local authorities may not always identify migrant deaths as such. Others provide only aggregate or year-end data, making it difficult to understand how and why hundreds of migrants die on the border each year.
Nonetheless, IOM researchers say they are confident that data reveals the vast majority of migrant border deaths recorded by the Missing Migrants Project occur on the US side of the frontier – though one reason for this may be that coroners, medical examiners, and sheriffs in US border counties are more likely to regularly report data on migrant deaths to IOM staff.
Reports of deaths south of the border often surface locally from radio stations and small newspapers, as well as social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Often IOM researchers become aware of these fatalities weeks, even months after they occur.
The Missing Migrants Project has recorded 1,468 deaths on the US-Mexico border since the project began in 2014, including 14 deaths in January 2018. Most recently, three men drowned in separate locations while attempting to cross the Rio Grande last Wednesday (31/01).