Friday, 16 May 2014

Names and dignity for the desert’s unknown dead

When Robin Reineke achieves a goal at work her spirits are lifted. It lasts no longer than one minute. Then she remembers the implications of her success: a good result is matching the remains of a migrant who has died crossing the US-Mexican border with the family’s description.

For many families, however, finding their loved ones is a comfort. Trapped in a purgatory of not knowing, their quest for answers can become all-consuming. Ms Reineke recalls one woman who recognised her son’s camouflage trousers from the buttons – they had been moved to fit his slim frame when his father handed them down.

The woman had been distraught over her son’s whereabouts – he had left in the night without telling her, which is common among migrants hoping for a smooth departure. When she finally received confirmation that her son’s remains had been found in the desert, her frantic mind was calmed. She could bury her son. “She was so grateful that she could take care of him and honour him,” reflects 32-year-old Ms Reineke.

Providing support to such families is part of Ms Reineke’s job as executive director of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights in Tucson, Arizona. The non-governmental organisation compiles and owns the most comprehensive data about missing border crossers and unidentified remains found where the US and Mexico meet. The database draws on information derived from forensic examinations and provided by foreign consulates and families. It enables people to find their relatives’ unidentified remains. When there is a possible match, Ms Reineke calls the family.

The centre takes its name from the hummingbird, colibrí in Spanish. In 2009 the remains of a man who died while crossing the border were found. In his pocket was a small, dead hummingbird – an indigenous symbol of safe passage.

Most anthropologists who work in human identification are forensic anthropologists. Among them is Bruce Anderson, Ms Reineke’s colleague, who specialises in skin and bone that might establish an identity through old fractures or dental work.

Ms Reineke, however, is a cultural anthropologist focused on social relationships. She believes her background helps her liaise between forensic scientists and families of the missing, generally indigenous people. “We understand cultural and religious needs in terms of the disposition of the dead body. We act as mediators between the scientists, who are focused on the dead, and the families focused on the living and honouring the memory of the deceased.”

Each year the remains of about 165 people are recovered from the desert of Pima county in southern Arizona. About 35 per cent cannot be identified. Before 2000, typically 10 bodies were found in the Pima county desert every year.

A report by the University of Arizona attributes the increase to tightened border security that was introduced by the Clinton administration. This has created a so-called funnel effect in which migrants choose entry points that are less policed but more remote.

The report rejects the notion that more people are dying because more people are trying to cross the border. Border Patrol apprehension statistics – a measure often used as a proxy for unauthorised migration flow – show that the number of people attempting the crossing has actually decreased.

Half of the deaths are caused by overheating. Typically, groups of mig­rants walk for three to five days, with little access to water. Those who have underlying health problems or are in pain are likely to be left behind, which is potentially lethal in the desert.

Ms Reineke is featured in Who is Dayani Cristal? , a documentary that deals with a forensic investigation into the case of a migrant found in the desert. The film retraces the man’s steps from Honduras following the path of other migrant travellers. As is usual for these “illegals”, he carried no passport or papers. Ultimately it is his tattoos, which name his young daughter, that help to identify him.

After identification, his family is able to make the match and bury him. Ms Reineke makes the point that many families are not able to do this. “A lot of cases aren’t resolved,” she says.

She cites the example of a newly married and pregnant Guatemalan woman who contacted her recently. Her husband had lost his job and felt his only option was to go to the US and send money home. Despite her request that he remain in Guatemala he left in the middle of the night. He has not been found.

Ms Reineke believes the film helps to humanise the migration debate. “In the US, the discussion on immigrants is hostile and racist. We dehumanise migrants. People shouldn’t have to walk through the desert to come to the US. People don’t want to leave their families.”

Does she not believe in border controls? “We’re too focused on the border and don’t look at the broader social and economic reasons.”

Her work on migrant identification began in 2005. She took an internship with Dr Anderson while studying for her PhD in cultural anthropology. At that point, he was desperate for help compiling details of those found dead in the desert.

The bulk of her work deals with calls from families anxious about missing relatives. Now the centre, funded by the Ford Foundation, among others, receives as many as 70 calls a week. On average she or her colleagues take about an hour to ask questions to create a detailed profile that includes identifying features such as a history of bone fractures, also establishing whether the person has tried to cross before.

Details of personal items are obviously useful to investigators – photographs, handwritten notes from family members, children’s drawings, bibles. Many migrants carry prayer cards or other items representing saints.

Ms Reineke anticipates the missing are likely to be dead but is careful to talk of them to their families in the present tense. Nonetheless, she sees it as her duty “to prepare them for the very worst”.

Many families are scared of coming forward to US authorities, she says, in case their relative has made the journey successfully and is working illegally across the border.

The work can be frustrating, Ms Reineke reflects. “The science and technologies can be out of reach due to expense.”

Moreover, dealing with different government authorities can be complicated. The job, inevitably, gets her down at times. But she is cautious about overstating the impact on her.

“If I take on the families’ grief then I can’t help them.”

Friday 16 May 2014


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