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Repository of Practices

Missing and Deceased Migrant Program (MDMP)

Primary GCM Objectives

GCM Guiding Principles*

*All practices are to uphold the ten guiding principles of the GCM. This practice particularly exemplifies these listed principles.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)


2016 - Present

Type of practice


Geographic scope


Sub Regions:


Hoping to reduce the high number of missing migrants and unidentified deceased individuals in the Southern African region, primarily between the Zimbabwe – South Africa migration corridor, the ICRC Regional Delegation in Pretoria undertook a pilot project “Missing and Deceased Migrant Program” (MDMP) to aid in the resolution of cases of missing persons and unidentified human remains. The program entails working together with South African and Zimbabwean authorities to complement existing systems, tools and resources used to locate missing migrants – living or deceased. The objectives of the program are to provide families of missing and deceased migrants with answers about the fate of their loved ones; restore the identity and dignity of deceased migrants and enable the return of their remains to their loved ones for proper burial; and to improve the way in which families, public authorities and forensic practitioners share information used to search for and identify missing and deceased migrants. The initial phase involved engaging with the authorities and community groups to better understand the problem. This was followed by the registration of missing persons cases by conducting interviews with families of migrants that went missing from the Zaka and Gwanda Districts in Zimbabwe. During the interviews information on the possible whereabouts of the missing persons and personal data which could be used in identification was collected and compiled as a tracing request (for community enquiry) and missing persons information form (for authorities and long-term enquiry). During the pilot phase 61 tracing requests and missing persons forms were collected with 15 of these people being located and reunited with their families through ICRC’s community engagement in South Africa. The pilot project confirmed that when a conduit is accessible for reporting missing relatives, families will readily participate. Furthermore, families provide very useful missing persons information that is forensically pertinent for both tracing inquiries but can also be entered into the various databases managed by authorities and relied upon to complement efforts towards the identification of deceased persons. The pilot initiative (phase 1) was initiated from 2016-2018. Due to the success of the pilot phase the ICRC further developed it into a multi-phase program, with phase 2 being implemented from 2019-2021. During this phase the program expanded its collection of missing persons data into the Harare and Bulawayo districts within Zimbabwe whilst continuing collection of tracing requests in Zaka and Gwanda. From 2022 onward the ICRC Regional Delegation in Pretoria started with the handover phase. This entails handing over the program to the Red Cross National Societies as well as the authorities to undertake the program further for its long-term implementation.


Main Implementing Organization(s)

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

Detailed Information

ICRC Southern Africa Regional Delegation, Pretoria

Partner/Donor Organizations

Gauteng Forensic Pathology Service
University of Witwatersrand
Zimbabwe Republic Police
Interpol National Central Bureau Zimbabwe

Benefit and Impact

To date, the project has seen a number of positive identifications of migrants, both who went missing as well as those who have died and remained unidentified for a period of time and their subsequent reunification with their families for proper burial that resulted in the restoration of their dignity through identification. Other key results resulting from the program saw the establishment of the Human Decedent Identification Unit at the Johannesburg Forensic Pathology Services. The Unit was established as a direct result of the program and oversees secondary human identification examinations of unidentified decedents that enter the Johannesburg Mortuary. Furthermore, the program introduced the standardization of forms and processes, and training of practitioners and forensic students. To date, the Human Decedent Identification Unit has, through the committed efforts of its specialized forensic staff, processed over 889 unidentified human decedents using secondary human identification methods with 205 of these being positively identified. The Pretoria Delegation has also worked with Forensic Pathology Services in areas with large migrant populations to expand these identification units to these facilities, which could lead to a reduction in the number of unidentified bodies of presumed migrants. As part of the MDMP, the ICRC Pretoria Regional Delegation has also undertaken a project on forensic stable isotope analysis as a way of looking towards advancement in science and technology to link the unidentified dead with their places of origin.

Other positive secondary benefits of the Missing and Deceased Migrant Program further saw the establishment of Oversight Committees responsible for overseeing the project after the handover, in both Zimbabwe and South Africa. The first Oversight Committee meeting was held in Zimbabwe on 30 August 2021 and was attended by representatives from the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), Immigration, Central Registry, Foreign Affairs, Health, Justice and Civil Protection. The first meeting of the Oversight Committee in South Africa was held on 7 October 2021 and included participants from the South African Police Service, Justice, Health and Home Affairs. During these meetings it was agreed that the existing Interpol mechanism for sharing of information between Zimbabwe and South Africa will be used as the official conduit for the missing migrant cases. Technological equipment was also donated to the Interpol desk in Zimbabwe for supporting this endeavour. To ensure that the ZRP are aware that they can register cases of missing migrants, various workshops were held in Harare, Masvingo, Bulawayo and Matabeleland South in collaboration with the ZRP and Interpol NCB to sensitize authorities to the procedure to be followed in these cases.

Key Lessons

A challenge for the national implementation of programs is the often burdensome and time-consuming effect of having to undergo negotiations for agreements with the various governmental departments, both at the national and provincial level. The best possible method for overcoming this challenge is patience and continuous follow-up. The success of resolving the missing in Africa, which must include technical procedures to identify the dead in mortuaries, is both determined by robust policy supporting humanitarian action combined with the standardization and systematized response of practitioners to a protracted issue that is unlikely to diminish as mass migration is further triggered by climate change, economic challenges, and in some countries, conflict and violence. Countries are no longer able to resolve the missing or identify many dead without cooperating in transnational programs that ensures the exchange of forensically reliable information between the country of origin and countries of transit or destination, and vice versa. To meet the transnational commitment, sound national programs need to exist for families and authorities to participate equally. Most countries are still very much in the process of developing national capacity.

As highlighted above there needs to be a formal agreement between the two countries to ensure that the program is sustained once handed over the authorities. The first combined Oversight Committee meeting between Zimbabwe and South Africa during which the Terms of Reference of this agreement is to be formalized is still to take place. The ICRC plans to continue to provide technical support and guidance to the Oversight Committee as they establish the mechanism and the program continues to develop, which will require additional resources.

Recommendations(if the practice is to be replicated)

1. Family engagement is of upmost importance to ensure the success of any missing persons investigation, humanitarian or otherwise.
2. Missing persons can both be alive or dead but those that are dead provide immediate opportunities for identification and return to the families rather than only looking for the missing that remain obscure in society and may not want to be found due to fear of deportation and fear of prosecution. The need for a systematic approach on both ends (both the missing and dead) is thus necessary.
3. The use of a neutral intermediary is beneficial in cases where community-police engagement is sub-optimal.
4. Migrant projects, like any forensic projects dealing with open population cases, should start as pilots and grow as the resources become available.
5. Support authorities through pilot projects to demonstrate concrete results of their labour so that they may be more inclined to invest in the program further.


The practice is innovative in that it involves all State authorities tasked with the search and identification of missing persons and unidentified human remains through a collaborative approach with the inclusion of forensic best practices for the resolution of cases of presumed migrants. The practice also saw the establishment of the Human Decedent Identification Unit (HDIU) at the Johannesburg Forensic Pathology Services, the mortuary arguably being one of the busiest mortuaries in the country that processes some of the highest numbers of unidentified deceased individuals yearly. The establishment of the HDIU saw for the first time the introduction of secondary forensic human identification methods being applied to the humanitarian investigation of cases of unidentified human remains to assist in the resolution of cases of missing persons. The unit also now co-hosts together with the ICRC Regional Delegation the Forensic Human Identification workshop which provides training to forensic practitioners globally on forensic human identification methods. Moreover, to contribute to the innovation of the practice of the MDMP, the ICRC Regional Delegation leveraged on the development of science and technology by undertaking a research project on forensic stable isotope analysis for purposes of linking unidentified deceased individuals with their places of origin to track down potential families of unidentified deceased migrants in specific communities. The impact of the practice is sustainable since the program can be easily taken over by local authorities tasked with the investigation into cases of missing persons and unidentified human remains, although oversight is still necessary to ensure that the authorities show continued commitment to the cause. The program is also easily scalable by tracking the number of successful resolution of cases of missing persons and unidentified human remains that results in positive identifications by the authorities using the methods and collaborative approaches introduced by the program.


Samson and Sampinya: Reunited after 44 years apart

Samson and Sampinya: Reunited after 44 years apart

Date submitted:

14 September 2023

Disclaimer: The content of this practice reflects the views of the implementers and does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations, the United Nations Network on Migration, and its members.



*References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of United Nations Security Council resolution 1244 (1999).