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The families of missing migrants and refugees may never know their fates

The families of missing migrants and refugees may never know their fates

chartno3/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

In 2015, almost 3,000 people died trying to cross the sea and start a new life in Europe. It was the shocking images of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi – who drowned as his family tried to flee the Syrian conflict for the safe haven of the EU – that sparked a global outcry over this tragedy.

International media attention made it possible for Aylan to be identified, his family informed and his body repatriated to Syria for a decent burial. But the vast majority of migrants and refugees who drown in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas are never identified. Their unnamed bodies are deposited without ritual or respect in graveyards on Europe’s periphery.

This is hardly a new phenomenon. The inhabitants of Greek and Italian islands have been dealing with the human tragedy of finding bodies on their beaches for many years now. One result of this epidemic of anonymous death is that migrants simply disappear from the lives of the families they have left behind. For every body that is washed ashore in Italy or Greece, there is a family waiting for news from their missing loved one. Families want to know what has happened to those who left for Europe: they want to know whether their loved ones are dead or alive.

Searching for answers

As it stands, the states of Europe have consistently failed to provide such answers. That’s why we decided to investigate the outcome of shipwrecks, in an effort to understand what’s being done to arrange the collection, identification, burial and repatriation of migrant bodies at the EU frontier.

Our research focused on the Greek island of Lesbos, which is now the leading entry point to the EU for sea-borne refugees and migrants. What we found was a fundamental lack of planning about how to deal with the problem of dead and missing migrants.

Both EU and national authorities seek to avoid responsibility for the identification or proper burial of the dead by using language that deflects blame. By characterising deaths as “accidents”, or dead migrants as “victims” of smuggling networks national and EU authorities deflect any legal or moral responsibility for the identification or proper burial of the dead. They devote more rhetoric and resources to targeting alleged traffickers than to preventing deaths or addressing their consequences. It’s difficult to imagine that this lack of accountability would be acceptable if the bodies found on beaches were those of Europeans.

Rather than dedicate its considerable political and economic power to this humanitarian challenge, we found that the EU relegates responsibility to local municipal authorities. Although there needs to be a local response, these authorities do not have the resources or capacity to deal with the task at hand. This is where national governments and EU authorities have a responsibility to step in and help to collect data from bodies or contact families who are waiting for news. And there is no consular aid available to most migrants.

While living migrants are some of the most heavily-monitored individuals in the EU, dead migrants merit almost no attention from the authorities.

These factors have led to shocking scenes in cemeteries in Lesbos and Lampedusa. The bodies of unidentified migrants are buried in common graves, only lightly covered by earth. The only markers are broken stones – often recycled from older graves – on which is written the purported nationality of the deceased, a number, and a date.

An unnamed grave in Mytilene, Lesbos. Author provided

Since most bodies are unidentified, this nationality is typically based on an informed guess or information from survivors, rather than any real investigation. The techniques of forensic anthropology and DNA identification, which have proven so valuable in identifying those who have disappeared in conflict and political violence in the past, are largely absent here. We found that in some contexts, authorities may collect samples from bodies. But there is rarely anything to compare them with, so this useful tool is largely neglected.

The management of the missing in the aftermath of the war in Bosnia is a good example. In 2001, the International Committee on Missing Persons (ICMP) started using DNA-based identification of the victims of the Srebrenica massacre. Since then, it has identified almost 80% of the approximately 7,000 people who went missing in the biggest mass killing in post-World War II Europe. Austrian authorities are using similar techniques to identify the 71 migrants who suffocated to death in an abandoned lorry earlier this year.

To identify the migrant dead, information needs to be collected from bodies: these data include both documents and information taken from the body - such as identifying marks, and tissue samples that can be used for DNA testing, which can be matched with that of family members. Those who made the journey with them, and survived, may also have valuable information about their identity.

Next, there must be a route for families in migrants’ countries of origin to report missing people and provide details about them to the European authorities. Finally, data from families – potentially including DNA – must be matched to the information collected from and about bodies found at the EU’s Mediterranean shores.

Affront to human decency

The current, ad-hoc approach means that even when a family can confirm that their relative has died in a shipwreck, they have no way of locating their loved one’s remains among the unnamed graves. The very few families who have been able to claim remains are those with significant political or economic influence.

One local from Lesbos who we interviewed told us that of one shipwreck in which 22 migrants died, only two bodies were repatriated. This was the result of their family relationship to an Afghan minister, who mobilised the Afghan embassy in Athens. The other victims were buried at the local cemetery. As an 18-year-old from Afghanistan aptly put it: “Only the rich get back, the poor stay here.”

Most governments are now agreed: the images of European cemeteries filling with unidentified bodies are an affront to the conscience of humanity. Both the EU and the national authorities of its member states have a moral and legal obligation; not only to stop the deaths, but also to identify and appropriately manage the dead at their borders.

This can and should be decoupled from the broader and more contentious issue of border control. Organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Commission for Missing Persons have the experience, means and capacity to support EU states to address this urgent humanitarian issue. Now, they must be given the mandate and the resources to do so.

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