More than 68 million people are currently exiled from their homes by
violence, more than at any other point in recorded history. By 2050, according
to a recent study by the World Bank, at least another 140 million people
will be forced to relocate because of the effects of climate change.
Accelerating inequality, meanwhile, continues to drive inhabitants of poor
regions to wealthier ones. While the most recent exodus of refugees from wars
in the Middle East into Europe has peaked, such colossal population transfers
will soon become routine.
In the midst of this unprecedented wave of dislocation, thousands of
migrants disappear every year. These disappearances are a function, largely, of
the imperatives of secret travel. Lacking official permission to cross borders,
“irregular migrants” are compelled to move covertly, avoiding the gaze of the state.
In transit, they enter what the anthropologist Susan Bibler Coutin has called
“spaces of nonexistence.” Barred from formal routes, some of them are pushed
onto more hazardous paths—traversing deserts on foot or navigating rough seas
with inflatable rafts. Others assume false identities, using forged or borrowed
documents. In either case, aspects of the migrant’s identity are erased or
This invisibility cuts both ways. Even as it allows an endangered group to
remain undetected, it renders them susceptible to new kinds of abuse. De facto
stateless, they lack a government’s protection from exploitation by smugglers
and unscrupulous authorities alike. Seeking safe harbor, many instead end up
incarcerated, hospitalized, ransomed, stranded, or sold into servitude. In
Europe, there is no comprehensive system in place to trace the missing or
identify the dead. Already living in the shadows, migrants who go missing
become, in the words of Jenny Edkins, a politics professor at the University of
Manchester, “double disappeared.”
Taken as a whole, their plight constitutes an immense, mostly hidden
catastrophe. The families of these migrants are left to mount searches—alone
and with minimal resources—of staggering scope and complexity. They must
attempt to defy the entropy of a progressively more disordered world—seeking,
against long odds, to sew together what has been ripped apart.