The idea was bold from its inception: Attempting to count dead and missing migrants worldwide. Paris enterprise writer Lori Hinnant noticed a lack of data after covering the outflow of refugees from the Islamic State takeover in parts of Iraq last year, and set off on a mission to count the uncountable.
AP's resulting team effort found 56,800 dead and missing migrants since 2014, almost double the number currently put out by the United Nations, which focuses heavily on Europe and nearly excludes several other areas of the world.
The yearlong effort to document lives that would otherwise go unnoticed proved extremely challenging, precisely because it was plowing such new ground. An AP team of more than a dozen people painstakingly compiled information that had never been put together before from international groups, forensic records, missing persons reports and death records, and went through data from thousands of interviews with migrants. Hinnant developed a database with advice from Angel Kastanis from the data team, going through entries individually to prevent double-counting as far as possible. The first few months of the project were spent finding gaps in the data and trying to think creatively about how to fill them accurately. The methodology evolved with an eye toward generating a real count of lives cut short or disappeared, rather than less ambitious estimates of the cost of migration.
The data came alive with individual stories of migrants, a challenge in itself. The team focused on stories from Tunisia, South Africa, Mexico, France and Colombia, and produced separate stories for four different regions – Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe – to give AP's clients flexibility. Istanbul visual journalist Bram Janssen and Cairo photographer Nariman El-Mofty did separate photo essays to capture different perspectives on the story, Janssen out of South Africa and El-Mofty out of Tunisia. Janssen also put together a separate video piece just on South Africa, where he found records for more than 4,300 migrants from 2014 to 2017 whose bodies lay unnamed in one province alone.
Digital producer Nat Castañeda organized presentations of the story both on APNews.com and the AP Images blog and built several video vignettes featuring Janssen’s drone footage that allowed readers to dive deeper into the individual regions. Meanwhile, Global News and Enterprise Editor Raghu Vadarev, organized the work into a hub on APNews.
The project, relying on the breadth of the AP, also saw significant contributions from Jim Gomez, Mehdi El Arem, Niniek Karmini, Christine Armario, Peter Hamlin, Maria Verza, Ariana Cubillos, Kristen Gelineau, Lotfi Bouchouchi, Angeliki Kastanis and more. International Enterprise Editor Mary Rajkumar coordinated the project.
The project drew significant interest, despite the fact that it ran six days before the U.S. midterm elections. The International Organization for Migration called to find out more about how AP put together the database, and will use our information to update the UN numbers for missing and dead migrants. Poynter called the story "an audacious idea" with "a devastating result," while Hinnant did interviews with European media. On APNews, the story made the top 10 with nearly two minutes of reader engagement.
Brian Carovillano said the project combined “strong investigative reporting that breaks news with compelling characters, human drama and great visual elements. This is the kind of journalism that stands apart from the noise of the daily news cycle and gets people talking, and thinking.”
For their ambitious project that established AP as a global authority on this issue, Hinnant, Janssen and El-Mofty share the Best of the Week award.