The Migrants' Files

Tracking the people who lose their lives on the path to asylum is one way for us to understand the scale of the refugee crisis—and a powerful tool to push governments to take action.

But official numbers are often wrong and grossly undercount the number of deaths. Three years ago, a group of European data journalists launched The Migrants’ Files. The objective was to gather information from as many sources as possible to come up with a reliable estimate of how many people have died en route to Europe over the last 15 years.

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The results are startling:. Between January 2000 and November 2015, 31,478 migrants have died or gone missing. The majority of deaths were due to drowning or exhaustion. This year and last year count among the deadliest since 2000.

Speaking at The 19 Million Project in Rome (an event sponsored by Fusion and Univision), Jacopo Ottaviani, an Italian data journalist working on The Migrants’ Files, said it’s critical to get correct numbers to the public. “If you have accurate figures on this stuff you can, first of all, move the debate from opinions to facts," he told me. "People can rationalize their view using data. They can’t actually have the right sense of proportion without data. They feel overwhelmed by the news.”

Ottaviani said the reliability of official government data on dead and missing migrants varies greatly between European countries. “Sometimes it’s just a lack of awareness around the importance of data and transparency," he said. "Sometimes they exploit this to cover things up or to spread skepticism.” For governments, having more accurate data encourages more transparency around how they decide their migration policies. “It’s the right thing to do and it has very concrete consequences,” he said.

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The project also collected information from European government statistics, academic research institutes, and news reports to get some idea of how much money European governments have spent over the last fifteen years on deporting migrants, or preventing them from arriving in Europe. They found that the EU has spent 11.3 billion euros to deport migrants.

The databases will continue to be updated by more than 20 journalists and coders from 15 countries. Ottivani said the impact of the project is noticeable in media reporting and in the figures used by non-profits. The International Organization for Migration, for example, began publishing their count of the dead and missing soon after The Migrants’ Files was published, following a report that they based partially on The Migrants' Files. "I think we shocked the system a little bit,” he said.