Leaving Asia for the unknown, thousands disappear in transit

When Almass was just 14, his widowed mother reluctantly sent him and his 11-year-old brother from their home in Afghanistan all the way to Germany via a chain of smugglers. The payment for their trip was supposed to get them away from the Taliban.

Now Almass' young brother is among the vast, shadowy ranks of Asia's missing migrants , vanished somewhere in Iran. Even Almass himself, although he is now safe in France, may be counted in the ranks of the missing.

As global migration has soared to record highs, far less visible has been its toll: The tens of thousands of people who die or simply disappear during their journeys, never to be seen again. A growing number of migrants have drowned, died in deserts or fallen prey to traffickers, leaving their families to wonder what on earth happened to them. At the same time, anonymous bodies are filling cemeteries around the world.

In most cases, nobody is keeping track: Barely counted in life, these people don't register in death, as if they never lived at all.

Asia has the world's largest overall population movements, but also has the least information on the fate of those who disappear after leaving their homelands. The Associated Press was able to document more than 5,400 migrants who disappeared or died after leaving home in Asia and the Mideast, their most common destinations. That's in addition to the 2,700 missing and dead documented by the U.N.'s International Organization for Migration, for a total of more than 8,200 since 2014.

The total includes more than 2,000 migrant workers from the Philippines, their absence leaving a void for family and friends. Another 2,675 are missing from Indonesia.

Asians make up 40 percent of the world's migrants, and 13 of the top 20 migration pathways from Asia take place within the region. These include Indian workers heading to the United Arab Emirates, Bangladeshis heading to India, Rohingya Muslims escaping persecution in Myanmar, and Afghans crossing the nearest border to escape war.

But with large-scale smuggling and trafficking of labor, and violent displacements, the low numbers of dead and missing indicate not safe travel but rather a vast unknown.

Almass and his brother left from Khost, Afghanistan, into that unknown. The pair crammed first into a pickup with around 40 people, walked for a few days at the border, crammed into a car, waited a bit in Tehran, and walked a few more days.

His brother Murtaza was exhausted by the time they reached the Iran-Turkey border. But the smuggler said it wasn't the time to rest — there were at least two border posts nearby and the risk that children far younger travelling with them would make noise.

Almass was carrying a baby in his arms and holding his brother's hand when they heard the shout of Iranian guards. Bullets whistled past as he tumbled head over heels into a ravine and lost consciousness.

Alone all that day and the next, Almass stumbled upon three other boys in the ravine who had also become separated from the group, then another four. No one had seen his brother. And although the younger boy had his ID, it had been up to Almass to memorize the crucial contact information for the smuggler.

When Almass eventually called home, from Turkey, he couldn't bear to tell his mother what had happened. He said Murtaza couldn't come to the phone but sent his love.

That was in early 2014. Almass, who is now 18, hasn't spoken to his family since.

Almass searched for his brother among the 2,773 children reported to the Red Cross as missing en route to Europe. He also looked for himself among the 2,097 adults reported missing by children. Neither was on the list.

With one of the world's longest-running exoduses, Afghans face particular dangers in bordering countries that are neither safe nor welcoming. From June 2017 to April 2018, the 4Mi project by the Mixed Migration Centre in Geneva carried out 962 interviews with Afghan migrants and refugees in their native languages around the world. The migrants said they had witnessed 247 deaths along the way, with people killed in violence from security forces or starving to death. The effort is the first time any organization has directly captured the perils facing Afghans in transit to destinations in Asia and Europe.

Almass made it from Asia to Europe, and speaks halting French now to the woman who has given him a home in a drafty 400-year-old farmhouse in France's Limousin region. But his family is lost to him. Their phone number in Afghanistan no longer works, their village is overrun with Taliban, and he has no idea how to find them — or the child whose hand slipped from his grasp four years ago.

"I don't know now where they are," he said, his face anguished as he sat on a sun-dappled bench. "They also don't know where I am."