In 2015 and the first half of 2016, more than 6,600 refugees and migrants drowned or went missing in the Mediterranean after their boats capsized while trying to reach Europe. The crisis is ongoing and every day more people go missing. A new report, authored by the University of York, City University London and the International Organization for Migration's Global Migration Data Analysis Centre, shows that many of the bodies are never identified, and families at home face never finding out what has happened to their loved ones.
"Behind the visible catastrophe of shipwrecks and deaths in the Mediterranean is an invisible catastrophe in which bodies are found and not enough is done to identify them and inform their families," says Dr Simon Robins, lead author of the report and a senior research fellow at the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York.
"This is devastating for their families back home. They likened it to a form of torture where they are caught between hope and despair, not knowing whether they would ever see their loved one again, not knowing if they should give up hope and focus on the rest of their lives."
"More than anything these people want to know if their loved one is alive or dead. If they are dead, they want to bring their relative home and have them buried visibly in their community."
The report details the findings of the ESRC funded Mediterranean Missing project, which was launched as part of a wider £1 million ESRC research programme, in response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis.
Over a period of 12 months a team of researchers worked on the Greek island of Lesbos and in Sicily, Italy - the two main entry points for migrants and refugees into Europe and where a large number of boats carrying migrants have sunk in recent years - and looked at how the authorities deal with the bodies of migrants. They interviewed a range of relevant actors, including local authority employees, NGOs, coastguards, coroners, and funeral office staff, as well as families of missing migrants from Tunisia, Syria and Iraq, to understand their experience.
What they found was shocking. The number of both arriving migrants and of deaths has overwhelmed local authorities that have limited resources, and – in the case of Greece – been devastated by economic crisis. As a result, efforts to determine the identities of dead migrants have been insufficient. Official investigations were limited and often flawed. Personal effects of refugees found on the beaches were not systematically collected or stored to support identification, and survivors of shipwrecks were not systematically interviewed about those who had died.
There are also problems in the management of data from bodies. In Italy for example every region stores data independently. In Greece even though DNA samples are taken from dead bodies, and stored centrally, there is no way of linking most bodies buried in a Lesbos graveyard to a DNA sample held in Athens, because until recently bodies have not been consistently labelled.
"Under international human rights law, all states have an obligation to investigate any suspicious death,” says Dr Simon Robins. “However we found that in many instances migrant deaths were not being investigated."
"Think about the amount of resources and attention that have been focused on finding out what happened to the victims of the Malaysia airlines flight MH370 disaster. Some 13 jumbo jets worth of migrants have died in the last 18 months, but there has been little media attention and insufficient efforts made to determine their identities."
The main problem identified by the researchers in their report is a lack of coherent and coordinated policy concerning deceased migrants in both Greece and Italy. The policy vacuum at the national level means that local municipalities and authorities are overwhelmed and are not provided with the capacity or financial resources to deal with the nature and volume of the humanitarian crisis. There are a large number of agencies with overlapping mandates that fail to coordinate with one another, leading to no one being sure who is responsible for what. The different state and local agencies involved have little support from national governments or from the EU.
In Italy, a Special Commissioner for Missing Persons has led investigation in cases of three large scale shipwrecks and - through agreements with relevant actors including forensic experts and police - been supported with the resources to do an excellent job in collecting data from bodies. The challenge now in Italy is to extend such efforts to all migrant deaths. In both Greece and Italy, efforts to contact the families of the missing have been largely frustrated, with the result that little data has been collected from families of missing migrants, preventing identifications. The result of this is bodies being buried unidentified, with little prospect of their being identified in the future. This provides an example for Greece, which requires the coordination of a range of agencies that currently operate with overlapping and often inadequate mandates, by a single body.
Another problem is the lack of an international mechanism to exchange data on deceased migrants and from missing persons, such that these data can be matched to make identifications.
What this means is that there is no point of contact in Europe for family members looking for a loved one who might have died crossing the Mediterranean. An additional barrier is that families searching for missing people are often not even able to travel to European states to identify their relative. Trying to get a visa to enter the EU is difficult, and there is no such thing as a humanitarian visa.
So what can be done to improve the situation? The authors suggests a number of ways that states can improve their procedures for identifying those who have drowned at sea.
"We believe that Italy and Greece have a legal duty to investigate, as well as a moral obligation to the families of those who have died, which isn't being met," says Dr Simon Robins.
"More effort also needs to be made to reach out to missing migrants' families. Involving families would help investigators make identifications, as they could collect data from the family that could be matched to that taken from the bodies of the deceased. More than this, families could be put at the centre of efforts to address the issue. Families of missing migrants are living every day with uncertainty: European states have a moral and legal obligation to make efforts to end their suffering."