Friday, 2 October 2015

Migrant crisis: Nameless dead with no one to claim them

Shrouded in white, the little girl lies on the ground in the paupers’ section of Lesbos cemetery.

Strangers attend her burial, and she will forever rest next to an unknown woman who died with her.

“Her mother may be alive in Turkey but we have not been able to find a family contact,” says Effi Latsoudi, a member of a volunteer group helping migrants on Lesbos, the Greek island that is a gateway into Europe for thousands of migrants and refugees.

All that is known of the little girl is that she was seven—according to the coroner—and that she died on September 20 trying to cross the Aegean Sea in search of a better future.

Among the group she was apparently travelling with, the Turkish coastguard rescued 20 people and another 24 are believed to be missing.

A bulldozer digs three new graves for the girl, two women and an unidentified man. For want of space, the girl will be buried with one of the women.

Assuming all four are Muslim, the graves are dug facing Mecca.

An Iraqi refugee is present to say a prayer for the dead, assisted by Mustafa, an Egyptian interpreter working for rights group Pro Asyl.

Two women from the Israel-based humanitarian agency IsraAID—an Israeli and a Palestinian—are also present.

The volunteers all help to lower the bodies into the ground.

At the end of the prayer, olive branches are placed on the graves.

Europe should be ashamed

“Europe should be ashamed of forcing these people to risk their lives,” says one of the volunteers.

The continent is grappling with its biggest migration challenge since World War II, with the main surge coming from civil war-torn Syria.

“Many of these people have relatives looking for them and they have no support to find them,” says Latsoudi.

Another five-year-old girl from Syria died a day earlier. She was identified and her family, who are refugees in Germany, will claim her body for burial.

A Christian family from Syria—a couple with two children and a grandmother—lie beneath headstones adorned with flowers.

They died on March 18, 2014, hoping to reach family in Sweden. Their relatives subsequently travelled to Lesbos for the funeral.

But another man from Syria was only identified a year after his death by his wife.

And older graves belonging to Kurds, Iraqis, Afghans who died in past migrant waves are marked only with numbers.

Other more recent victims are “identified” by their date of death.

“Unknown, August 28, 2015.”

“Unknown, September 4, 2015.”

The cemetery of Agios Panteleimonas on the island capital of Mytilene has been the final resting place of migrants who perish in the storm-hit Aegean for years.

Now it is running out of space.

Since the beginning of the year, 11 graves have been added to more than 60 already dug in this section of the cemetery.

And 10 more people await to be buried.

Many more will drown

“This used to be a mass grave for victims of the Second World War. Only refugees and poor Greeks are buried here now,” Latsoudi says.

The local group she represents, Horio Oloi Mazi (‘the village of all together’) was founded in 2012 after 22 migrants died near the island.

It aims to bring “a little respect and humanity” to the dead and to help their relatives seek them out, she says.

More than half a million people have reached Europe via the Mediterranean this year—including more than 310,000 who have landed in Greece, figures from the UN refugee agency show.

But according to Greek authorities, more than 100 migrants have died or gone missing in the last two weeks alone in at least seven boat accidents.

“Now that the northern winds have picked up there will be even more drownings,” says Christos Mavrakidis, the man responsible for the cemetery.

Earlier in the day, another woman and child died when the bottom of the inflatable dinghy they were sailing in fell apart.

Mavrakidis says the bodies should be exhumed after three years — as is done with Greeks who can’t afford to continue paying for a grave — to create space.

However, Muslim burial rites forbid this.

Friday 2 October 2015

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The families of missing migrants and refugees may never know their fates

In 2015, almost 3,000 people died trying to cross the sea and start a new life in Europe. It was the shocking images of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi – who drowned as his family tried to flee the Syrian conflict for the safe haven of the EU – that sparked a global outcry over this tragedy.

International media attention made it possible for Aylan to be identified, his family informed and his body repatriated to Syria for a decent burial. But the vast majority of migrants and refugees who drown in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas are never identified. Their unnamed bodies are deposited without ritual or respect in graveyards on Europe’s periphery.

This is hardly a new phenomenon. The inhabitants of Greek and Italian islands have been dealing with the human tragedy of finding bodies on their beaches for many years now. One result of this epidemic of anonymous death is that migrants simply disappear from the lives of the families they have left behind. For every body that is washed ashore in Italy or Greece, there is a family waiting for news from their missing loved one. Families want to know what has happened to those who left for Europe: they want to know whether their loved ones are dead or alive.

Searching for answers

As it stands, the states of Europe have consistently failed to provide such answers. That’s why we decided to investigate the outcome of shipwrecks, in an effort to understand what’s being done to arrange the collection, identification, burial and repatriation of migrant bodies at the EU frontier.

Our research focused on the Greek island of Lesbos, which is now the leading entry point to the EU for sea-borne refugees and migrants. What we found was a fundamental lack of planning about how to deal with the problem of dead and missing migrants.

Both EU and national authorities seek to avoid responsibility for the identification or proper burial of the dead by using language that deflects blame. By characterising deaths as “accidents”, or dead migrants as “victims” of smuggling networks national and EU authorities deflect any legal or moral responsibility for the identification or proper burial of the dead. They devote more rhetoric and resources to targeting alleged traffickers than to preventing deaths or addressing their consequences. It’s difficult to imagine that this lack of accountability would be acceptable if the bodies found on beaches were those of Europeans.

Rather than dedicate its considerable political and economic power to this humanitarian challenge, we found that the EU relegates responsibility to local municipal authorities. Although there needs to be a local response, these authorities do not have the resources or capacity to deal with the task at hand. This is where national governments and EU authorities have a responsibility to step in and help to collect data from bodies or contact families who are waiting for news. And there is no consular aid available to most migrants.

While living migrants are some of the most heavily-monitored individuals in the EU, dead migrants merit almost no attention from the authorities.

These factors have led to shocking scenes in cemeteries in Lesbos and Lampedusa. The bodies of unidentified migrants are buried in common graves, only lightly covered by earth. The only markers are broken stones – often recycled from older graves – on which is written the purported nationality of the deceased, a number, and a date.

Since most bodies are unidentified, this nationality is typically based on an informed guess or information from survivors, rather than any real investigation. The techniques of forensic anthropology and DNA identification, which have proven so valuable in identifying those who have disappeared in conflict and political violence in the past, are largely absent here. We found that in some contexts, authorities may collect samples from bodies. But there is rarely anything to compare them with, so this useful tool is largely neglected.

The management of the missing in the aftermath of the war in Bosnia is a good example. In 2001, the International Committee on Missing Persons (ICMP) started using DNA-based identification of the victims of the Srebrenica massacre. Since then, it has identified almost 80% of the approximately 7,000 people who went missing in the biggest mass killing in post-World War II Europe. Austrian authorities are using similar techniques to identify the 71 migrants who suffocated to death in an abandoned lorry earlier this year.

To identify the migrant dead, information needs to be collected from bodies: these data include both documents and information taken from the body - such as identifying marks, and tissue samples that can be used for DNA testing, which can be matched with that of family members. Those who made the journey with them, and survived, may also have valuable information about their identity.

Next, there must be a route for families in migrants' countries of origin to report missing people and provide details about them to the European authorities. Finally, data from families – potentially including DNA – must be matched to the information collected from and about bodies found at the EU’s Mediterranean shores.

Affront to human decency

The current, ad-hoc approach means that even when a family can confirm that their relative has died in a shipwreck, they have no way of locating their loved one’s remains among the unnamed graves. The very few families who have been able to claim remains are those with significant political or economic influence.

One local from Lesbos who we interviewed told us that of one shipwreck in which 22 migrants died, only two bodies were repatriated. This was the result of their family relationship to an Afghan minister, who mobilised the Afghan embassy in Athens. The other victims were buried at the local cemetery. As an 18-year-old from Afghanistan aptly put it: “Only the rich get back, the poor stay here.”

Most governments are now agreed: the images of European cemeteries filling with unidentified bodies are an affront to the conscience of humanity. Both the EU and the national authorities of its member states have a moral and legal obligation; not only to stop the deaths, but also to identify and appropriately manage the dead at their borders.

This can and should be decoupled from the broader and more contentious issue of border control. Organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Commission for Missing Persons have the experience, means and capacity to support EU states to address this urgent humanitarian issue. Now, they must be given the mandate and the resources to do so.

Friday 2 October 2015

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Cape town Fishermen's bodies to be identified

Arrangements are being made for loved ones to identify the remains of the fishermen who died on Sunday when a fishing trawler overturned, the Viking Fishing Company has confirmed.

Group financial director Rory Williams said family members were being contacted and the company would facilitate the "sad task".

"Throughout Monday and Tuesday, bereaved family members and survivors were consoled at the Viking offices with trauma counsellors on stand-by to assist where needed. Company staff have also travelled to Hermanus to identify the deceased," he said.

Nine bodies were recovered and three crewmen were presumed to have drowned after the 42-metre Cape Town fishing trawler reportedly took on water in heavy sea swells 20 nautical miles south of Hangklip (35 nautical miles South East of Cape Point).

The 21-member crew of the MFV Lincoln had to abandon ship after the vessel started keeling over.

Search called off

The search for the last missing men was called off at 18:00 on Tuesday.

"Ongoing counselling will be made available to all families as required, especially to those families where the bodies have not been recovered," Williams said.

Once the bodies have been identified, the company will co-ordinate with families and undertakers to collect the deceased and assist the families with their funeral arrangements, he added.

"All employees are covered by the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (COIDA), the company’s Group Accident Policy and additional underwriting benefits covered through the company’s pension and provident funds."


The trawler would remain under the South African Maritime Safety Authority’s (Samsa) care while it conducted investigations into the circumstances of the accident.

The vessel had arrived at the company’s quayside premises in the Cape Town harbour after being towed back by a sister ship on Tuesday.

It had been examined within port limits by Samsa to ascertain the extent of the damage prior to entering the harbour, Williams confirmed.

Thursday 1 October 2015

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Mecca stampede: Indonesian RI haj team continues pilgrim search, body identification

More bodies of Indonesian haj pilgrims are expected to be identified in the coming days as the government steps up its efforts following the arrival of dozens of containers carrying the victims of a recent stampede in Mina, Saudi Arabia, at hospitals on Wednesday.

As of Wednesday, the Indonesian death toll in the accident had reached 57 of the more than 700 who died, with around 78 Indonesian pilgrims “yet to return to their groups” since the deadly crush, the worst of its kind in 25 years, that occurred on Thursday last week.

The government has yet to confirm the whereabouts of the 78 people, whether they “got lost” after the stampede or were among victims’ bodies currently being examined at dozens of hospitals in Saudi Arabia, especially in Mecca and Medina.

Religious Affairs Ministry spokesman Rosyidin told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday night that five Indonesian pilgrims who were injured during the stampede had been receiving medical treatment at different hospitals in Saudi Arabia, adding that all identified Indonesian victims confirmed dead had been buried in the kingdom. “Tonight [Wednesday] there are several containers that have been opened.

There were also four other containers shipped to Jeddah to be identified at one of the hospitals in the city,” Rosyidin said.The ministry said the government of Indonesia would try its best to find the missing pilgrims and would keep family members updated about the search.

Meanwhile, according to data from the Indonesian haj team in Saudi Arabia, the number of missing pilgrims comprised nine people from Batam, 17 from Surabaya, 40 from Jakarta, 10 from Makassar, six from Solo, one from Balikpapan and one from Lombok. The head of the Religious Affairs Ministry’s Mecca office, Arsyad Hidayat, said on Wednesday that the Indonesian haj team had established three separate groups to expedite attempts to identify bodies unloaded from containers in several cities.

The first team was tasked with counting the number of Indonesian pilgrims yet to return to their groups by visiting all groups of Indonesian pilgrims in Mecca, while the second team would visit hospitals in Mecca and Jeddah to find injured victims. “The third team is to identify bodies of victim at [crisis center] Majma’ Ath-Thawari Bil Mu’aishim by identifying pilgrims’ paperwork [and] haj attributes such as bracelets, shawls and bags,” Arsyad said on Wednesday.

As victims’ bodies have begun to decompose, the third team, according to Arsyad, would cooperate with Saudi Arabia’s disaster victim identification (DVI) unit to get data on pilgrims’ fingerprints recorded when they first arrived in the kingdom. “We hope that with the use of fingerprints it will be easier for us to identify the bodies [of Indonesian pilgrims].

In addition, if we don’t find any haj accessories then we will confirm [the identity of] victims’ bodies with their respective group heads,” Arsyad added.Commenting on authorities’ slow progress in identifying the victims, House of Representatives Deputy Speaker Fahri Hamzah urged the government to exercise more political clout in dealing with the Saudi administration’s closed-lid stance on the resolution of the tragedy.

Fahri, who leads the House’s haj monitoring team, said that Saudi authorities should have provided unrestricted access and open communications to assist in the monitoring and handling of the situation, especially since Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population and sends the biggest number of pilgrims to Mecca every year.

“Indonesia has not shown the communicative prowess to [confront] Saudi Arabia [about disaster mitigation],” Fahri told reporters during a press conference at the House complex on Wednesday. House Speaker Setya Novanto corroborated his colleague’s claims by saying that Saudi officials had initially prevented the haj monitoring group from entering hospitals, despite having flaunted the Saudi Kingdom’s crest to prove that they were guests of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. “Eventually we waited until a car passed by and we snuck in,” Setya said on Wednesday. He claimed not to have seen any Indonesian officials in the hospital that day, despite the presence of several injured Indonesian citizens.

Friday 2 October 2015

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