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 deformed.
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.