Over the past decade, the vast blue sea between North Africa, Turkey and Europe has become a stage for mass death. Of the more than 2 million people who have attempted the crossing, most from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, at least 28,000 are missing, presumed to have perished, conservative estimates suggest.
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The first quarter of 2023 was the deadliest in the central Mediterranean since 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration. Director General António Vitorino fears the deaths “have been normalized.”
Of the known dead, only around 13 percent of bodies are ever recovered by European authorities, the International Committee of the Red Cross estimates. The vast majority are never identified. The chances of a relative receiving confirmation of a missing loved one’s death are “like the odds of winning the lottery,” in the words of one humanitarian official.
“It’s certainly more challenging than, say, a domestic air crash, but with the right will, it can be done,” said Cristina Cattaneo, a professor of forensic pathology at the University of Milan, whose lab works to identify the bodies of migrants recovered by Italian authorities.
But Cattaneo’s Labanof laboratory receives no state funding. European governments offer few resources for recovering, let alone preserving and identifying, human remains that reach their shores.
Spain has a centralized forensic database, but it is only searchable by name. In Italy and Greece, there is limited coordination between different offices and regions handling cases of missing migrants. A 2018 agreement between Italy, Malta, Greece and Cyprus to share forensic information with the European Commission has yet to be fully implemented.
Within that void, people like Cattaneo are trying to put names and faces to the missing. “You do the tissue sample, you collect all the information that you need and put it in your data,” she said. “The difficult part is looking for the relative, but it’s not impossible.”
Estefanos is one of the most recognizable faces of the far-flung diaspora, making her a lifeline for those in search of the missing.
They give her the details they have just learned (when the boat left and which smuggler was paid) and the details they have always known (“he cracked his tooth playing football as a kid”).
She shares their stories on Facebook and on her weekly radio show. In one case, she traveled to find answers, scouring hospitals and prisons, but to no avail.
Sometimes, a survivor from the shipwreck will get in touch, or a smuggler will share the passenger list from a lost ship.
More often, boats are swallowed without survivors, sinking so deep they will never be found. Or bodies scatter to different shorelines, without identification documents, and officials there do little to investigate who they were.
There is more that can be done, experts and activists insist, to restore dignity to the dead and offer closure to families yearning for news.
An Eritrean mother whose son went missing in 2005 has been calling Estefanos for 18 years. “I wish I could give you an answer, but I can’t,” the activist tells her. The woman always counters the same way: “So why can’t you tell me he’s dead?”
The European Union has focused on preventing migration, striking deals with governments across the Middle East and North Africa to intercept boats before they reach European waters and funding detention centers to hold their passengers.
For the most part, European governments only take concerted action to identify the dead after large shipwrecks that attract media scrutiny.
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When a blue trawler sank in Greek waters on June 14 with 750 people on board, the country took the rare step of activating its Disaster Victim Identification system, generally used during natural disasters. Authorities reached out to the migrants’ home countries to help identify the bodies and created a hotline for families.
No such response has accompanied the dozens of sinkings that have taken place since, in Greece or elsewhere. The Missing Migrants Project has recorded almost 500 deaths in the Mediterranean during that period.
“People are voluntarily and consciously turning their heads from the problem,” Cattaneo said.
Tunisia overtook Libya this year as the top launch point for migrant boats headed across the Mediterranean. In the country’s southern waters, fishermen find corpses in their nets; beachgoers discover them washed up on the sand.
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In 2016, Aouatef Amade M’charek, an anthropology professor at the University of Amsterdam who specializes in forensics, began to hear more and more of these stories from her hometown of Zarzis, a seaside community about 50 miles from the Libyan border.
Today, she is the principal investigator of a project funded by the European Research Council, animated by a central question: How did this body end up here?
“In the early years, people did not care too much about the dead,” she said. Tunisian migrants left on sturdier boats and safer routes, she said, and fewer drowned.
That changed in July 2019, when 87 bodies washed up on the shore of Zarzis. M’charek was there on a research trip. Police were overwhelmed, she said. Street cleaners carried the cadavers on their trucks.
They were driven to Gabes, a city about 90 miles north, which has a hospital equipped to perform forensic analysis. Since then, a doctor there and another in Medenine, have examined bodies that wash ashore in Zarzis.
“What Gabes has been good at is the possibilities of identifying people based on their personal effects — their clothing or the stuff that they carried with them,” M’charek said.
If the body belongs to a Tunisian citizen whose family is actively looking for them, identification is relatively straightforward. But “when it comes to identifying a random, unknown body that washes up on the shore, that has been more difficult,” she said.
During a four-year period from 2017 to 2021 at one major hospital in the southeastern city of Sfax, three-quarters of the dead were never identified, according to a report by forensic specialists.
Matching DNA samples to relatives in other countries would require an international database, ideally allowing family members to submit samples locally, humanitarian officials say.
“For all of this, you need systems in place, agreements in place, and for people to actually know that these avenues exist,” said Florian von König, who leads the ICRC’s efforts to engage governments on migration issues.
The greatest obstacle, experts agree, is a lack of political will.
“Something needs to change,” M’charek said. “You can’t do this at a national level; it has to be international because of the nature of the problem. You don’t know where a body will wash up.”
In Tunisia, many of them are buried by Chamseddine Marzoug, an activist and fisherman from Zarzis, whose Cemetery for the Unknown is the final resting place for hundreds of migrants. Small headstones rise from red dirt mounds.
“This summer was the most intense we’ve had,” Marzoug said. His graveyard is now full.
Marzoug and fellow activists are calling on aid groups to help local volunteers collect more bodies from the Mediterranean — and on European authorities to help identify them.
“There are families who are waiting for their loved ones,” he said.
Loveluck reported from London and Parker from Cairo.