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An Innovative Data Journalism Project Tracks How Many People Have Died Seeking Asylum

Migrant files

For anyone trying to make sense of the refugee crisis, numbers are crucial. Tracking the people who lose their lives on the path to asylum is one way for us to understand the scale of the 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 journalist launched The Migrants’ Files in an effort to address that. Their objective was gather information from as many sources as possible to come up with a reliable estimate of how many people have died trying to migrate to Europe over the last 15 years.

The results are startling, and put the current crisis in perspective. Between January 2000 and this month, 31,478 migrants have died or gone missing while trying to reach destinations in Europe. 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, Jacopo Ottaviani, an Italian data journalist involved in 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. 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; sometimes they exploit this to cover things up or to spread scepticism.” For governments, having more accurate data encourages more transparency around how they decide their migration policies, he said. “It’s the right thing to do and it has very concrete consequences.”

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 in the first place. They found that the EU has spent 11.3 billion euros to deport migrants.

It is an ongoing venture, which will continue to be updated by the group of more than 20 data 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.

“I believe that we triggered some change. IOM published that report that was partially based on The Migrant Files, and right after they published the Missing Migrants Project. I think we shocked the system a little bit,” he said.

— Nidhi Prakash

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