Guest post by Nicolas Kayser-Bril, CEO and co-founder of Journalism++, an agency for data-driven stories. Before founding Journalism++ in late 2011, Nicolas was in charge of datajournalism at OWNI, a Paris-based news startup. A self-taught programmer and journalist, Nicolas holds a degree in Media Economics. You can follow him on Twitter @nicolaskb. Licence: CC-BY-SA-NC 3.0

The Migrants Files, licence CC-BY-NC
Launched in August 2013, The Migrants Files is an investigation carried out by a dozen European journalists from six countries enumerating those who have died wanting to reach or stay in Europe. Partially funded by the, the project has its roots in OWNI, a French startup, which in 2011 visualized similar data in a “Memorial for the dead of fortress Europe.” At first, we simply sought to merge and structure the data of the two available sources on the subject, United Against Racism’s and Gabriele Del Grande’s lists of deaths. The more we worked, however, the more we realized that no data-driven account of the problem existed and that it was urgently needed. This post is a short description of our methodology, goals, and impact.

Data cleaning

The Migrants Files, licence CC-BY-NC
After merging and de-duplicating the two sources over the period 2000 to 2013, we searched for additional databases, such as Puls, a project by the University of Helsinki that scrapes news articles on the topic. We structured all the information, making it machine-readable, while checking for consistency in order to estimate the accuracy of our data. Adding and editing data was done in, a tool for open source intelligence investigations.

What we found out:

  • By aggregating sources we showed that the number of dead and missing migrants was 50% higher than previous estimates.
  • Mortality rates between migration routes vary widely, from 2 dead per 100 successful journeys in the Canaries to 6 near Malta and Lampedusa. The figures represent the number of deaths along certain routes over the number of detection by Frontex on the same route.
  • No EU Member State or EU institution gathers official data on migrants deaths. As one public official put it, dead migrants “aren’t migrating anymore, so why care?”
  • As EU Member States constantly close the routes with low mortality, they push migrants towards the more dangerous ones. Under these circumstances, talk of “lives saved” and the security of migration, in which surveillance and push-back activity have been renamed into search and rescue operations, seems little more than a political whitewash.

Beyond numbers

Spain / Mixed migratory flows / The Spanish coastguards intercept a traditional fishing boat laden with migrants off the island of Tenerife in the Canaries. / UNHCR / A. Rodríguez / 24 October 2007
Some journalists had doubted that there was still demand for such stories, given the amount of coverage received by the Lampedusa shipwreck of 3 October 2014. Yet, the virality of The Migrants Files showed that public concern over this matter remained high.  Unsurprisingly, the visual contents of the investigation received the lion’s share of public attention. All media coverage focused on the map of the casualties, which was reprinted in several dozen media outlets in Europe and beyond.  Other aspects of the investigation, about migrant safety, the subsidies paid by European governments to support detention, and deportations in the desert, were ignored (see this report from 2012 for details).  While the deaths are, indeed, shocking, stories about migrants seem stuck in the pity section of news. No editor seems ready to push it into the politics section and ask the difficult questions we must post about the humanity of European migration policies.

What’s next

We are currently working on a second round of The Migrants Files, to build visual and interactive features that will go beyond body counting and show several angles of the problems. We also aim at refining the data sufficiently to be able to analyse the dangerousness of the journey by country of origin and gender. We’ll engage all the positive responses we received after the first publication round and crowdsource the checking of events and some data cleaning tasks. On the anniversary of last year’s Lampedusa October 3rd shipwreck, we will publish a comprehensive account of what is (and isn’t) being done to improve the safety of migration routes and compare that to the statements issued by officials from the EU and member-states. If you want to help, contact us at

For more information about deaths at the border, and the need to count and account for them, see the work in Australia of the Border Crossing Observatory at Monash University.

For a related post about deaths at the US-Mexico border, see Daniel E. Martinez and Robin C. Reineke's (2013) Undocumented Border Crosser Deaths in Southern Arizona.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Kayser-Bril N (2014) The Migrants Files: A Quantitative Approach to Migration Policy. Available at: (accessed [date]).