Monday, 28 July 2014

Costa Concordia: Divers begin search for missing Indian waiter

The search is on for the missing body of an Indian waiter who died while helping passengers escape from a sinking cruise liner near an Italian island in January 2012.

Russell Rebello, 33, had been ushering passengers off the doomed Costa Concordia and never made it off the ship alive.

Thirty-two people died after the Costa Concordia capsized and sank after smashing into rocks off the Italian island of Giglio on the night of Jan. 13, 2012. Two-and-a-half years since the disaster, all of the bodies have been recovered except Rebello’s.

The wrecked vessel pulled into the Italian port of Genoa on July 27 to be scrapped after a four-day journey from the disaster site, according to the Times of India.

The top priority of officials will be to begin the search for Rebello’s body, which may have been trapped in a previously inaccessible part of the ship.

Investigators are hopeful of finding his remains as the ship salvage operation has now begun in full force, added the report.

The Concordia was one of the most luxurious cruise ships to sail the ocean and had many restaurants, bars, a spa and a casino onboard. At 290 meters, it was longer than the Titanic.

Divers are now beginning the search for Rebello’s remains, which have become entombed in the ship.

According to the Daily Mail, Rebello was last seen ushering passengers to safety in rescue boats.

The ship had 4,229 passengers and crew from 70 countries, many of whom jumped into the sea as lifeboat pulleys failed.

Monday 28 July 2014

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Air Algérie crash bodies to be brought to France

All the bodies of passengers on Air Algérie flight AH5017 are to be brought to France, President François Hollande announced after meeting families of the 54 French victims on Saturday. Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaoré met families of Burkinabé families in Ouagadougou.

Flags throughout France will be at half-mast for three days starting Monday in a gesture of mourning for those killed when the plane crashed near Gossi in northern Mali shortly after leaving Ouagadougou for Algiers.

"As soon as possible all the bodies will be brought to France," Hollande said. "I mean all the bodies of passengers on this flight."

The families are owed solidarity, compassion and support but also the truth, the president said as French and UN investigators started examining the site of the accident.

Families in Ouagadougou told RFI they wanted to bury their loved ones.

"Each family that you see in this room desperately hopes to have the remains of their relatives to begin to mourn them," Traoré Alima said.

But that might be difficult, according to Burkina Faso General Gilbert Diendéré.

"I don't think we can reconstitute the bodies," he said. "They have been scattered, dispersed ... let's hope we can at least have the ashes."

Representatives of Burkinabé, Lebanese and French families who have visited the site agreed.

"There's not much to see," one of them, Eugène Somda told RFI. "The wreckage of the plane, small pieces, not much to recognise an airplane. Now I know where my brothers. It's pretty hard. We won't to go and find out but can we live with what we've seen. It's going to be very hard."

The rainy season in the region may also add to the investigators' problems in establishing the cause of the crash.

Monday 28 July 2014

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Fighting blocks MH17 site mission

Australian Federal Police officers were forced last night by fierce fighting to delay their search of the MH17 crash site for the still-missing remains of some of those who died aboard the Malaysia Airlines jet.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said last night the operation was too risky to go ahead, with the Agence France Presse news agency reporting that the fighting was only 1km away from the crash site in eastern Ukraine.

“There is fighting going on. We can’t take the risk,” said ­Alexander Hug, deputy chief monitor of the OSCE special mission in Ukraine.

Earlier complex negotiations had cleared a temporary path through the war zone.

Tony Abbott had announced earlier that the unarmed police would be deployed as part of a Dutch-led international human­itarian mission.

The first team of 49 police that was to be sent to the site included 11 Australians, the Prime Minister said.

“I expect there will be considerably more on-site in coming days,’’ he said. “This is a risky mission, no doubt about that.

“But all the professional advice I have is that the safest way to conduct it is unarmed, as part of a police-led humanitarian mission. Our objective is to get in, to get cracking and to get out.”

The Australian government has also sent a group of unarmed defence force personnel to ­Europe to help with logistics and medical care.

Bill Shorten has assured the Prime Minister of Labor’s full support for the Ukraine mission.

Mr Abbott said the agreement to allow the police to carry out the search ordered by the UN had been carefully negotiated ­directly with the Ukrainian government and with the Russia-backed rebels who controlled the site, through the OSCE.

“That is absolutely critical,’’ Mr Abbott said. “Our objective is principally to recover the bodies. Our intention, under the auspic­es of local people, is to take over the site to ensure that recovery of remains can go ahead as swiftly and as ­effectively as possible.”

He said the police would stay as long as necessary to do a professional job, and that should take no longer than two to three weeks. “This is contested ground and we don’t want to be there any longer than is absolutely necessary,” he said. “Frankly, we need to be prepared to take some risks in order to do the right thing by our dead and by their grieving families.”

It is understood that debris from MH17 — believed to have been brought down on July 17 by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile with the loss of 298 lives — is scattered in five major sites covering more than 35sq km. It is about 11km long and fans out to 5km across at its widest point.

AFP Commissioner Tony Negus said there were now 190 AFP members in Europe, with all but 20 in Ukraine. Others were in The Netherlands, helping identify the bodies already flown there. The officers would be sent to the site as required, Mr Negus said.

Mr Abbott said some unarmed Defence personnel were in Europe helping with logistics. It is also believed that some Australian Defence Force medical staff are available as a standard precaution.

In Kiev, it appeared that one issue preventing the immediate full deployment of investigators has been the difficulty of finding the right people to sign off on the foreign presence. The Ukrainian government is in a dysfunctional caretaker state after its parliament was dissolved last week.

It appeared to have sent hundreds of military vehicles south to the outskirts of the eastern city of Donetsk, close to the crash site that is in the hands of the rebels, to prepare for a full-blown assault to blast the Russian-backed separatists out of the area.

Mr Abbott said the goal was to bring back the bodies of those who died, to help investigate what happened and to obtain justice as far as was humanly possible.

He said he had been advised by former ADF chief Angus Houston, who is in Ukraine, that “this is eminently doable’’.

And the Office of National Assessments security agency had told him that, while there were risks, they could be managed.

“This is a police mission. It is not a military mission,” the Prime Minister said.

Speaking to The Australian, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that the security of Australian police in Ukraine was her only priority.

She said the mission to recover the remaining bodies from the Boeing aircraft downed on July 17 had no immediate time limit, although Prime Minister Tony Abbott wanted as quick a resolution as possible.

Ms Bishop said: “We have to remember our objective and our objective is to ensure that we have thoroughly inspected the site for any remains. And experts can tell us whether there is a point beyond which there is no point, but they haven’t told us that, so we will continue to seek to undertake this mission for as long as we have to.”

Ms Bishop has flown to Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, with the Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans to ratify a formal agreement with the Ukrainian government to allow a small contingent of Australians to bear arms to provide protection for the much larger team of international forensic experts.

The Netherlands, Australia and a small team from Malaysia are charged with sweeping the extensive crash site to collect body remains and personal possessions to return to bereaved families.

Monday 28 July 2014

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Better management of dead and missing migrants needed in Europe

As the number of migrants and asylum seekers reaching southern Europe’s shores this year continues to climb - to about 75,000 at last count - so too does the death toll from attempts to cross the Mediterranean in over-crowded, unseaworthy boats.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that more than 800 migrants have died trying to make the treacherous crossing from North Africa since the beginning of the year.

Last week alone, the bodies of 29 migrants were found in the packed hold of a fishing boat where they are thought to have been overcome by engine fumes. According to survivor accounts, 60 others who tried to escape from the suffocating hold were stabbed and thrown overboard by five fellow passengers. A day earlier, the Italian navy rescued 12 people after their rubber dinghy capsized off the coast of Libya. Another 109 who were on the boat are missing.

An unknown number of other migrants who attempt the journey disappear without a trace, their bodies presumably claimed by the sea, leaving families back home desperate for news of their loved ones that never comes.

Yafet Gibe, an Eritrean refugee living in Sudan, last heard from his wife, Brikti, who was trying to reach Europe with their 20-month-old daughter, over a month ago. She called him from Libya, the departure point for most migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach Europe, on 20 June and told him that she would be boarding a boat on 28 June. Both a friend of Gibe’s based in Libya and the smuggler who had charged US$1,600 for the journey from Sudan to Libya and another $1,700 for the Mediterranean crossing, confirmed that Brikti and her child left on the boat as planned.

But Gibe, who had planned to join his wife in Europe with their other child at a later stage, has not heard from her since and he learned that about 250 other migrants and asylum seekers travelling on the same boat have also failed to make contact with their families. The smuggler insists that they are all in an Italian prison, but as the weeks pass with no word from any of them, this seems increasingly unlikely.

“Now I’m in Sudan and there’s no one that can help me,” Gibe told IRIN over the phone from Khartoum. “Some of my friends in Europe have contacted the Red Cross and they’re checking the names of those arriving in Italy, but there’s no news.”

No system for identifying dead migrants

Currently, Europe has no centralized system for identifying the bodies of migrants, who often travel without documentation, nor for informing their families in origin countries. Where there is no dead body available to collect DNA samples and other identifying data, the task of helping families to trace missing relatives is even harder. Now there is mounting pressure from migrant and human rights advocates who argue that migrants’ families have a right to know the fate of missing relatives and European governments should be doing more to help them.

“There’s an inability to grieve when you don’t have closure; entire lives become focused on the return of a loved one and family relations can disintegrate,” said Simon Robins, a researcher with the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights, who recently co-authored a briefing paper on how Europe could better deal with the migrants who die or go missing on its southern frontier.

He and his co-authors argue that “there is a humanitarian imperative and a moral and legal responsibility” to attempt to identify the bodies of dead migrants, inform their relatives and treat their bodies with dignity. However, based on research they conducted on the Greek island of Lesbos, this rarely happens. The researchers found “a gray zone where no authority assumed responsibility” for dealing with the bodies of migrants retrieved by the island’s coast guard. Nor is there any national or EU budget allocated for their burial. The result is that “unidentified migrants are hastily buried in unmarked graves” making it impossible for families to locate their remains.

“Gathering data from bodies is crucial where there is a body, but clearly a significant fraction of bodies are at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea and will never be found,” said Robins, adding that there are still ways of reconstructing who was on a boat.

Interviewing shipwreck survivors

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) interviews survivors of shipwrecks and other disasters at sea who are brought to Italian ports in an effort to compile a list of migrants whose bodies were lost or dumped at sea. The list is then passed on to the Italian authorities.

“What happens in practice is that as soon as a new shipwreck is reported, we’re immediately called by the families. We would then put them in touch with someone who was on the boat to determine if their relative was there,” explained Simona Moscarelli, a migration law expert with IOM in Rome. “In some cases, we’ve also accompanied migrants’ relatives to the police so they can report the missing.”

The shipwreck that claimed the lives of more than 350 mainly Eritrean asylum seekers off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013 shocked the world and provided the impetus for the Italian navy’s search-and-rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, which has rescued tens of thousands of migrants since it launched. The incident was unusual in that it occurred so close to shore that divers were able to retrieve the bodies. However nine months later, more than half of those bodies remain unidentified and the families of those that have been identified are yet to be officially notified, according to the Italian Red Cross.

Local authorities have taken DNA samples from all of the bodies, but without comparison samples from close relatives (known as ante-mortem data) that would allow a match to be made, the samples have little value. The 50 percent of the bodies that have been identified were mainly as a result of linking up relatives (who called organizations like the Red Cross and IOM in the days following the tragedy) with survivors who could confirm whether or not their family members were on the boat.

Both the Red Cross and IOM have a presence in Eritrea and potentially could collect DNA samples from relatives, but according to Lourdes Penados, regional forensic advisor with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), not many of the immediate family in Eritrea have made contact and asking them to present themselves for DNA collection presents considerable diplomatic and security challenges in a country where emigrating without the permission of the state is forbidden and severely punished.

Lack of centralized databases

ICRC hosted a conference in November 2013 on the issue of how Europe’s Mediterranean countries could better manage and identify dead migrants.

“We found that the problems are similar in most of these countries,” Penados told IRIN. “There’s a lack of databases for unidentified bodies and a lack of communication between institutions at the national and regional levels.”

A number of recommendations came out of the conference, including that there be standardized practices for collecting and managing information on dead migrants and that the data be recorded in centralized databases accessible to all relevant institutions. However, Penados said progress on implementing the recommendations had so far been very slow despite the ICRC’s efforts to lobby the European Union (EU) on the issue.

“It’s a regional issue so the EU has to get involved and also allocate resources for this centralization to happen,” she said.

One of the major impediments remains the lack of any mechanism to link post-mortem data from European countries where dead migrants are found with ante-mortem data from their countries of origin all over the world.

“It’s potentially a hugely complicated logistical problem,” admitted Robins, who nevertheless argued that with sufficient political will, the obstacles could be overcome.

Andreas Kleiser of the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) agreed that tracing dead migrants back to their families in various origin countries would take “a sizeable effort” but that similarly complex efforts to identify the dead in the wake of natural disasters and conflicts had yielded results.

“If you go back to the [2004] tsunami in Thailand, you had about 8,500 victims, among them many tourists from all over the globe. So you had to find the family members and get the DNA references and that was done. Interpol and national police forces cooperated to ask family members for DNA samples.

“So it can be done, but it takes a mechanism to coordinate these things and you need money.”

Last year, ICMP and IOM signed a cooperation agreement that aims to draw on ICMP’s long experience in using DNA testing to trace the missing and its sizeable database of reference and victim profiles and align this with IOM’s presence in origin countries where it could collect missing person information and DNA samples. However, concrete programmes have yet to be put in place and there is widespread agreement that leadership and funding needs to come from the EU.

“It involves EU member states and EU border protection systems,” pointed out Klesier. “It needs to be addressed at an EU-wide level and in the external relations of the EU as well.”

Monday 28 July 2014

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