Missing migrants: New data on the uncounted dead of the Mediterranean

Body bags LampedusaBy Claire McGillem and Simon Robins.

The International Organization of Migration (IOM) this week published research that confirms the scale of migrant deaths occurring in the Mediterranean, averaging eight per day for 14 years.

September marks the most devastating month for migrant deaths in the Mediterranean Sea. The IOM is investigating the crash of a migrant ship that left the port of Damietta, Egypt on September 6th and was reportedly wrecked by traffickers, resulting in the deaths of up to 500 migrants. A second ship carrying migrants from Libya capsized off the coast of Tripoli, resulting in an additional 200 deaths. Following this month’s incidents, IOM has documented over 3,000 migrant deaths in the Mediterranean in 2014, already three times the total in 2013. This month’s tragedies are indicative of an increased number of migrants attempting illegal crossings due to conflict, instability, and economic hardship in Africa and the Middle East.

What remains largely undiscussed in these data however is the fact that most of these casualties are missing: the IOM estimates that more than half of these deaths have not been verified. The impact of this on families in the migrants’ countries of origin is that they receive no information about what has happened to loved ones who have left. Like any unresolved loss, the impact of the ambiguity over the fate of the missing is that mothers and wives, sons and daughters live between hope and despair, always waiting for news of their loved one, but never receiving it. The most shocking source of missing migrants however is not the bodies swallowed by the Mediterranean and never found, but the failure to identify those whose bodies are washed up on the beaches of Europe’s southern shores. The cemeteries of Europe’s southern periphery are increasingly populated with anonymous bodies found on beaches following shipwrecks.

Despite the increased media coverage of these incidents, there is a recognizable lack of information about migrant bodies: live migrants are considered far more important than dead ones. Neither the EU nor member states systematically collect data on migrant deaths, hence the attention paid to the IOM report. This is reflected in the absence of consistent European Union policies to prioritise or enable the identification of bodies and transfer of information to victims’ families. Families of migrants await information regarding their loved ones, and coastal communities in southern Europe confront the challenge of appropriately and respectfully dealing with the bodies that arrive on their shores.

Though investigations are ongoing, two survivors, both Palestinian men, have recounted the events that led to the crash off of Malta’s coast. IOM spokesperson Christiane Bethiaume told Reuters that traffickers attempted to force migrants to relocate to a smaller vessel mid-journey. The Palestinian men described how their refusal ended in a confrontation whereby traffickers deliberately rammed the migrant ship, sinking the vessel and killing the migrants on board. In addition to Palestinians, the ship was also carrying mainly middle-class migrants from Egypt, Syria, and Sudan. Authorities in Italy, Malta, and Greece had also confirmed the rescue of 10 survivors several days after the wreck. The boat carried men, women, and children, and IOM’s Director General William Lucy Swing said, “[The migrants] only hope for a more dignified life. The risks they take reflect their desperation and we cannot keep abandoning them to their fate.”

Migrants are pushed to attempt dangerous and illegal Mediterranean crossings by a number of economic, social, and political grievances. About 120,000 migrants have attempted this journey in 2014, compared with 54,000 in 2011, during the height of the Arab Spring (IRIN News). One of the Palestinian survivors told IOM spokesperson Leonard Doyle about a young Egyptian migrant who died after attempting to survive by clinging to a life buoy: “…he had left home to earn money and pay for the heart medicine of his father.” Victims’ family members also point to the failing economies of Gaza and Egypt, violence in Syria and Sudan, and “prejudice against job-seekers in countries where well-educated migrants had been living” as motivating factors to risk the crossing, in some cases paying up to $4,000 to secure a spot on a European-bound ship.

The story however has remained one about Europe, driven by language that references the ‘flood’ of migrants, and a policy discussion centered almost exclusively around securing the borders of the EU. The 40,000 who have died trying to enter what they perceived as the promised land of the EU in the last 14 years remain faceless and anonymous, statistics that justify ever more draconian rhetoric in the capitals of the EU’s member states. Despite the significant media coverage of the recent shipwrecks, there has been little information shared with the public and, most importantly, victims’ families regarding the whereabouts of missing migrant bodies. Relatives continue to seek information from IOM and local authorities in the EU. There is a staggering need for a comprehensive approach to identification methods and dissemination of this data to migrant families, who in turn become victims of psychological suffering due to the ambiguous loss of loved ones. It is imperative that policymakers and the media include the needs of families in their official management of migrant deaths.

A recent research project has sought to understand how the states of southern Europe approach the issue. Simon Robins and Iosif Kovras have spent the last year trying to understand what happens to the bodies of migrants found on the coast of Lesbos, a Greek island that, after Lampedusa, receives the greatest flow of sea-borne migrants to the EU. What they found in Lesbos was a local population traumatised by an epidemic of dead migrants, local officials paralysed by a lack of resources, and policies from Athens that concerned only the management of living migrants. In contrast to the extensive regulation of migration by the Greek state, there are no regulatory provisions with regard to the identification and burial of the dead bodies of migrants. As a result, local authorities – with capacities eviscerated by the economic crisis – improvise responses, with the possibility of identifying the dead compromised by a lack of political will, expertise and resources. A visit to the local cemetery in Mytilene, Lesbos’ main city, reveals bodies lightly covered by earth, the only mark on the graves a broken stone on which is written the (purported) nationality of the migrant, a number, and the date of death. No effort is made to collect post-mortem data that could be linked to the human remains in the ground, and thus aid identification. Local communities by and large reject the language of security in which the issue is wrapped by central governments: they see migrants continuously arriving – both living and dead – and understand that this is a humanitarian issue.

To address the needs of families in migrants’ states of origin requires a commitment from the EU and its member states. Thus mist begin with a counting of the dead and missing: one reason the IOM report has garnered so much attention, is because Europe’s states don’t collect such data. Beyond statistics however there is a need for proper management of migrants’ bodies, such that data that can aid identification, from passports and IDs (rare, but sometimes found), to clothing, old injuries, tattoos and other physical evidence of identity. A systematic approach will likely include the taking of photographs of the dead, and the collection of tissue samples that can permit DNA testing. Identification will require that families of the missing, in Europe and beyond, have access to register cases of missing persons with a relevant agency, and potentially that a pan-European database exists that such families can interrogate remotely. This will require resources, but most of all it will require political will that is absent in a Europe where the public discourse around migration is restricted to an anonymising and stigmatizing generalization that all migrants are a security threat to the European way of life.

Whilst the EU and its member states devote huge resources to the maintenance of their sea borders, they find none to address the humanitarian impact of unidentified migrant bodies. The lack of data on the numbers of dead and missing demonstrate that dead migrants are of far less interest to authorities than live ones. EU states have the capacity to create a system in which migrant bodies are dignified with an appropriate burial, and data collected to maximise the possibility of identifying the dead and ensuring that their families are informed. This would resonate with the ideals of the EU as seeking to ensure human dignity, and perhaps by giving value to migrants in death find a route to valuing their lives in a way that would reduce the death toll in the Mediterranean.