On April 17, 2011, security guards beat Ifeanyi Nwokaye as he tried to escape from the Hal Far detention center in the European island of Malta. Nwokaye, a 29-year-old Nigerian citizen, died of cardiac arrest after spending his last hour handcuffed on the floor.
Less than a year earlier, a group of 12 people headed for Spain tried to cross the Algerian Sahara. Their jeep broke down several miles outside the oasis city of Tamanrasset, far from the nearest source of water. Their bodies were found on August 16, 2010, but their names and nationalities remain unknown.
These are only two of the 23,000 entries in The Migrant Files, a database compiled by a network of European journalists that documents the stories of those who have died while attempting to cross the borders of the European Union since 2000.
Since Frontnex, the international agency that patrols those borders, does not publish statistics on fatalities, The Migrant Files may now be the single most comprehensive database on migrant deaths in Europe. Released on Monday, the archive is freely accessible to the public.
The Migrant Files aggregates a number of separate databases compiled by non-governmental organizations, including Fortress Europe and United for Intercultural Action. After cleaning, fact-checking, and cross-referencing these databases, the Migrant Files team arrived at a body count at least 50% higher than that of previous estimates.
The website is quick to admit that any dataset of this size implies a margin of error. The total number of deaths is likely to be even higher.
Although officially committed to the free movement of people, the European Union has in recent years adopted strict immigration policies. Pushed in part by a revival in far-right parties across the continent, Frontnex has put increasing pressure on some of the most popular migration routes into the EU.
Rather than deterring unauthorized migrants, however, the new policies have pushed migrants towards more dangerous paths, according to Spanish newspaper El Confidencial, one of the participants of The Migrant Files project.
Beyond the figures, The Migrant Files provides a rare glimpse into the identities and stories of people who are usually only talked about as anonymous casualties. Although the amount of information available for each incident varies wildly, the website strives to provide name, gender, age, nationality, and location and cause of death of every single immigrant.
Browsing through the database quickly puts what would otherwise be a empty number — 23,000 — into human perspective. The first few hundreds of lines, for example, are identical. They simply read “A baby,” and represent all the infants who died and could not be identified.
Other entries paint vivid, painful scenes with just a few details. On October 30, 2005, for example, a single body floated into the Spanish port of Almeria on a drifting raft. His name was never learned.