More than 20,000 migrants are believed to have gone missing between 2014 and 2019 while trying to cross to Europe but the tragedy is that only 13 per cent of the bodies were found and buried. Even among those buried, many have not been identified, according to a report entitled ‘Counting the Dead’ by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Between 2014 and 2019, 2,609 bodies of dead migrants were buried in Spain, Italy and Greece, the ICRC report said. For family members, the lack of definitive answers to what happened to their loved ones prevents them from moving on, it added. .
Greece: 33 per cent
Spain: 50 per cent
Italy: 73 per cent
Counting the Dead is the work of the ICRC’s regional delegation in Paris. The report builds on the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam‘s database, which kept a tally of the number of migrants found dead on Europe’s southern borders between 1990 and 2013. Since then, the numbers have risen.
Noting that the families struggle to cope with what psychologists call “ambiguous loss”, the ICRC report notes that families have no official proof that their loved ones are dead. “In addition, when a loved one goes missing, it can often plunge families into financial and administrative difficulties. For instance, some are made poorer because of the loss of the breadwinner of the family; some cannot get access to pensions; others are unable to receive the transfer of land titles as the next of kin,” the ICRC said.
To help families search for their loved ones, the ICRC and Red Crescent Movementhas been providing the restoring family links service for more than 150 years. The Counting the Dead report is written in that spirit. It sets out recommendations for states and organizations to identify dead migrants and provide information to family members more effectively.
IMPROVING IDENTIFICATION PRACTICES
With respect to forensic systems in Spain, Greece and Italy, The ICRC suggests possible paths for their improvement. These recommendations are aimed not just at states but also at others that are on the front line, such as organizations that rescue migrants at sea.
The report highlights the importance of training everyone concerned, from people who pull dead bodies out of the sea to others who gather the information needed to identify a body, i.e. DNA, the dead person’s personal belongings, photos, geolocation of where the body was pulled out of the sea, etc. All of these data make it possible for a body to be given a name. But first the data have to be gathered — and gathered in a standardized way.
The ICRC report also points out that at the moment, no country has standard guidelines for state and non-state actors alike to follow. “So, coming up with unified, standardized procedures are much needed if we are to improve on the current rate of identification. So, coming up with unified, standardized procedures are much needed if we are to improve on the current rate of identification,” the organisation said.
DEVELOPING NEW METHODS
The ICRC also called for new methods that suit the specific conditions of migration into Europe. “Although migration routes are changeable, they are not random but structured, with specific points of departure and arrival. For example, migrants from Africa’s Atlantic coast set out to enter Europe via the Canary Islands and not via Greece (see map below). Although the search for people who go missing must be carried out across a region, it must nevertheless remain focused on the specific route taken, and even a specific incident (e.g. a shipwreck),” the report stated.
Sadly, some bodies are never recovered. How can these families still be provided with an answer, when there is no body? One solution would be to tell families where their loved ones were before they disappeared, on the basis of witness statements that confirm that they boarded a certain boat on a certain date. Naturally, this is only a partial answer, but it would nevertheless enable families to mourn their loss and move on with their lives. The report also highlights the need to systematically interview shipwreck survivors so as to identify the victims as well as those who have gone missing.
This is where gathering and sharing information really comes into play. However, such information is often scattered among states, organizations in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, sea rescue organizations, and migrants and their families, among others.
In order to solve missing-persons cases, sharing information for strictly humanitarian purposes is vital. The ICRC could play the role of a neutral intermediary between these different actors.
The report sets out many recommendations for states, in particular on how to improve their forensic system. The authors call on the European Union to set up a working group to deal with the issue of migrants who have gone missing or died, in order to facilitate the exchange of best practices and better collaboration between member states.