Identifying Migrant Bodies in the Mediterranean

Have you ever stopped to consider what happens to the bodies of undocumented migrants when they die trying to reach the shores of Europe? Who they are, who mourns their loss, where and how they are buried?

The nameless and un-mourned bodies of undocumented migrants feature prominently in the lived experiences of the Mediterranean coastal towns where they wash up – the triangle connecting Tripoli, Zouara and Lampedusa has been nicknamed “the black zone” by locals because of the countless corpses floating around – but they are conspicuously absent from the broader migration narrative and from the rhetoric of many influential actors involved in policy, academia, and the media. This blind spot is unsettling. Policy makers urgently need to discuss undocumented migrant body identification from a human rights perspective and to address the shortcomings of current management and identification efforts in European countries.

The International Organization for Migration’s “Missing Migrants Project” estimates that there have been 16,003 migrant deaths and disappearances in the Mediterranean since 2014. Like the estimates on living undocumented migrants, the true figure is likely to be much higher due to the difficulties of tracking those that do not wish to be tracked, and of counting bodies that have sunk below the surface of the waves. Most of those bodies will likely never be found.

Those that are found will just as likely never be identified. This is partly because of the inherent difficulties of identification in this context: there is no readily available information on the migrant’s nationality, route, or family relations; any personal belongings or identification documents may be ruined or rendered illegible by the water; and the bodies that have drowned are usually found as they resurface from the sea floor during decomposition, at which point they will have begun to lose physical attributes and appendages. Identification is also hindered by the lack of…

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