Celeste Irene, Silvia, Navia, Vilma, Reyna, Yesenia, Keida, Hala, Ada, Eneida, Myrian, Gol, Yulema, Maibeline, Jimena, Justine, Sephora, Antonia, María Yesenia, Dania, Gurpreet, María Senaida, Victoria, Briseyda, Juana, Marleny, Olga Marina, Angie Valeria, Natividad, Waldina, Saily, Hanata, Rosbeiny, Yéssica, Mersi Gabriela, Vilma Xiomara, Ashlie Fanny, Juana Ilda, Emmeni, Idalia, Emily, Pham Thi Tra My, Tran Thi Tho, Bui Thi Nhung, Tran Thi Ngoc, Tran Thi Mai Nhung, Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh, Nguyen Thi Van, Phan Thi Thanh, Mariam, Jessy, Abby, Valentina, Bárbara, Esmeralda, Jakelin, María Herlinda, Fatima, Riim, Iman.

According to data collected by IOM’s Missing Migrants Project, 501 women lost their lives during their migration journeys around the world in 2019. Yet, the identities of only 60 of these women are known. Their names are written above, in witness of their deaths and to ensure that they are not forgotten. The rest died in anonymity, far from home. Their families may not know about their deaths. It is likely that even more face this fate, as a complete registry of women and girls who have lost their lives on the move does not exist: existing records all have gaps, as much of the most basic information is missing. 

A woman carrying her child climbs to the top of a rail car in Mexico in order to travel north to the United States. This dangerous form of transport is called “la Bestia” (the Beast) by migrants, and has claimed many lives. © Keith Dannemiller / IOM 2014

Collecting and reporting data on missing migrant women serves to counter the invisibility of their deaths and challenge the narratives that frame this issue as an exclusively male experience. Stories of women and girls crossing borders are rarely heard. When women and girls go missing on their migration journey, their stories largely go unrecorded, unreported and untold. In rare cases when women’s stories are shared, they may be reported in a way that perpetuates gendered or other stereotyped assumptions about women and girls and their mobility.  

Below we describe some of these stories, as documented by the Missing Migrants Project last year. We share them to demonstrate the complex circumstances in which migrating women can find themselves, and in an effort to move away from addressing women and girls’ experiences through a lens of victimhood and highlighting their decision-making and agency.  While we don’t know the stories of the vast majority of women who lost their lives while migrating in search of better opportunities, their lives are certainly no less valuable. 

Children and women waiting behind fences at Pazarkule, Turkey where they attempt to cross the border to Europe. © Uygar Emrah Özesen / IOM 2020

Vilma (7 March 2019)

Vilma, a 16-year-old Guatemalan girl, died in a vehicle accident along with 23 other Guatemalan migrants in Chiapas, Mexico. Vilma had a flower stand in her hometown in Cajolá. The eldest of three siblings, she decided to go to the US when her father took ill, as the income from selling flowers could not cover the cost of the medicine needed to keep him healthy. Ten other women lost their lives in the same crash, including Navia, who was travelling to the United States to join her mother, and Keida, a 15-year-old girl travelling with her older brother.

Sephora (16 May 2019)

Thirteen-month-old Sephora drowned on the crossing from Morocco to the Spanish Canary Islands. Her mother, 26-year-old Ruth, was carrying her tied to her back, but when she disembarked from the wooden boat in the middle of the night near the shores of Gran Canaria, Sephora fell into the sea. Her body was found the next day.  

Justine (11 May 2019)

Sephora and her mother travelled on the same boat as Ruth’s cousin Justine and her eight-year-old daughter, who also left their hometown in Côte d'Ivoire seeking a better life in Europe.  

They made their way to the city of Dakhla, where they boarded a boat together with other Sub-Saharan African and Moroccan migrants on 11 May. They were at sea for four days before they reached the coast of Gran Canaria. When getting out of the boat, Justine lost track of her daughter. At night, and with no light to see where she was, Justine jumped back into the water to check if her little girl was still in the boat. She drowned trying to find her, not knowing that her daughter was already safe on the beach. Justine's body was found floating almost four miles off the coast. Justine and Sephora were buried in a cemetery in Gran Canaria at the beginning of June. 

Briseyda (23 June 2019)

Briseyda, a 20-year-old woman from Guatemala, and her 18-month-old baby, Denilson, were found dead in the brush just north of the Rio Grande outside McAllen, Texas, along with the remains of two other children, 20-month-old Marleny and three-year-old Juana. Briseyda left her hometown to join her two brothers in the US and so that she could contribute to the healthcare costs of her six-year-old sister, who has a heart condition that requires regular medical care. 

All four who died were part of a group of people who had crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico four days earlier. They then became lost in the inhospitable terrain of South Texas, and without access to adequate food, water and shelter, Briseyda and the three toddlers lost their lives. Juana’s grandmother later shared that 3-year-old Juana died in her mother’s arms.  

Rosbeiny (18 July 2019)

19-year-old Rosbeiny was killed by a truck as she was walking on the side of the road in Pamplona, Colombia. She was a Venezuelan caminantes (walkers), who had left her hometown, Caracas, in search of a better life in Colombia or elsewhere in the region during her home country’s troubled times. She traveled through Venezuela and crossed the border into Colombia, likely heading for Cali, where she had relatives. Rosbeiny could not afford to purchase a bus ticket, so she continued her journey on foot before being struck by a vehicle and killed.

Women and Girls Disproportionately Affected

Gabriela left Venezuela in search of better jobs opportunities. During her journey, she was often attacked and insulted. “One day on my journey I was starving, I thought I was going to die, and a Colombian woman gave me something to eat. I will never forget that.” © Muse Mohammed / IOM 2019 

Collecting and reporting data on the death of migrant women highlights the gender-specific ways in which migrant women and girls are disproportionately affected by the lack of options for safe and legal routes. Women have greater difficulty in accessing regular migration channels because they tend to have unequal access to rights, resources and information. Women’s mobility may be legally restricted, for example, though bans on emigration for women or laws requiring women to obtain permission from a spouse or male guardian to obtain a passport to travel. It may also be limited to certain existing gendered channels, such as restricting their employment to jobs seen as traditionally feminine and excluding them from jobs where men predominate.  

The barriers to accessing mobility increase the likelihood that women and girls take irregular migration pathways. While not all experiences are the same, women traveling through irregular channels are exposed to many risks. They may face experiences of marginalization and vulnerability during their journey, particularly when gender issues intersect with other factors, such as age, race and ethnicity, religion, family status, sexual orientation and gender identity, disability, pregnancy, and economic and social situation. 

Missing Migrants Project records, even if incomplete, show some of the risks women and girls face during their journey, which are often connected to dangerous means of transport, harsh environments or unsafe travel conditions during sea crossings. Nearly half of the deaths recorded in 2019 were due to drowning – 239 women lost their lives while crossing a body of water. The Mediterranean is not the only fatal sea journey; 29 women perished in the Caribbean last year.  

The available data show that women are also undertaking dangerous journeys by land. In 2019, 87 women died due to exposure to harsh environments while migrating, 64 due to vehicle accidents and 21 due to illness and lack of access to medicines. Women and girls are also affected by multiple forms of violence during their journey: records collected by MMP indicate that 59 women died due to violence in 2019. For 37 women, the cause of death is unknown. 

More attention is needed to the circumstances in which women and girls die or go missing during their journey. Highlighting their experiences and stories is critical to transform the broader policy and institutional contexts to enable migrant women and girls to lead lives in dignity and safety.  

A Mauritanian woman who was a victim of trafficking hides her face behind flowers © Sibylle Desjardins / IOM 2018 

Celeste Irene, Silvia, Navia, Vilma, Reyna, Yesenia, Keida, Hala, Ada, Eneida, Myrian, Gol, Yulema, Maibeline, Jimena, Justine, Sephora, Antonia, María Yesenia, Dania, Gurpreet, María Senaida, Victoria, Briseyda, Juana, Marleny, Olga Marina, Angie Valeria, Natividad, Waldina, Saily, Hanata, Rosbeiny, Yéssica, Mersi Gabriela, Vilma Xiomara, Ashlie Fanny, Juana Ilda, Emmeni, Idalia, Emily, Pham Thi Tra My, Tran Thi Tho, Bui Thi Nhung, Tran Thi Ngoc, Tran Thi Mai Nhung, Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh, Nguyen Thi Van, Phan Thi Thanh, Mariam, Jessy, Abby, Valentina, Bárbara, Esmeralda, Jakelin, María Herlinda, Fatima, Riim, Iman and the 441 women whose names are not known.  

We remember you.  

This story was written by the Missing Migrants Project team, based at IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre.