Southern EU Countries Reveal Forensic Initiative to Identify Missing Migrants

In an effort to more fully understand and improve the European Forced Migration Crisis, Mediterranean neighbours Italy, Greece, Malta, and Cyprus are compiling their efforts to gather DNA data from migrants gone missing at sea.

Since the beginning of 2018, over 24,000 migrants and refugees have entered Europe through a perilous journey across the Mediterranean, according to a new report from the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM). The same report states that 619 people have died or disappeared during attempted migration as of mid-May, however it’s likely that hundreds more bodies are left unidentified and uncounted.

Exact figures about missing migrants and those perished at sea are unavailable because countries of reception are ill equipped to handle the unprecedented volume of people reaching their shores. Now, Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus are launching an initiative to combat that. These countries, in partnership with the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), have devised a system to identify migrants lost in the Mediterranean.

Filling the Policy Vacuum

There is currently no standardised procedure to manage migrants that go missing or perish during their journey to Europe. While coastguards collect bodies and transport them to hospitals, local attorneys sign burial documentation and coroners carry out autopsies to determine causes of death. Hospitals and relief organisations have expressed an obligation to prioritize living migrants in desperate need of support.

All too often, this ambiguity has meant that bodies are not systematically collected or analysed. Not only does this leave families unaware of their relative’s fate, it increases the inaccuracy of our understanding of the European Forced Migration Crisis. By creating a transnational initiative with shared goals, the ICMP hopes to define this so-called “grey zone.” Destination countries will lead the operations, taking responsibility for the moral and legal obligation of identifying migrant bodies.

Since the start of the Arab Spring and outbreak of Libya’s civil war in 2011, Italy has received hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers at its borders. Italy’s Migration Study Foundation estimates over 690,000 migrants, largely hailing from Sub-Saharan Africa, have arrived in Italy by boat via the Mediterranean route since 2013. The Italian Administration’s collaboration with the Libyan government has aided in halving the number of deaths at sea in just the last 12 months. Copyright: Viktor Loki/

Providing Accurate Data and Deserved Answers

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus plan to use sophisticated DNA research methods similar to those that proved successful in identifying the vast majority of the 400,000 people who went missing during the 1990s Balkan conflicts and the victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. Similar efforts have been helpful in countries affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and hurricane Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013.

Not only does this crucial information provide much-needed closure for family members, and can also assist in connecting migrants that had no prior way of finding each other. In addition to its humanitarian purpose, the initiative will lead to a more accurate depiction of the migrant crisis that Europe is struggling to manage. More precise figures could inform key stakeholders and help enact policies that reflect the actual scope of the crisis.

Fostering International Cooperation

Italy, Greece, Malta, and Cyprus are among the hardest hit by waves of migrants from the Middle East and Africa. All four countries will gather with representatives from Southern Mediterranean nations like Libya and Egypt in Rome next month to discuss the initiative. Switzerland has already donated around €323,000 to fund the project. Director General of the International Commission of Missing Persons, Kathryne Bomberger, feels confident the plan will be enacted.

Bomberger also believes cooperation between states is key to the success of properly quantifying the numbers of the missing and the deceased, tracking survivors and locating bodies. The plan relies on effective coordination channels between countries of origin, transit, and destination.

It’s difficult to predict what this initiative will uncover, but standardising the identification of missing migrants, along with the management of that data, will undoubtedly lead to increased transparency regarding Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis.

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Elizabeth Smith

Elizabeth is a freelance writer and editor who has lived in America, Czechia, Spain, and the UK. She holds a media studies and journalism degree from New York University. Her clips can be found on NBC News, Business Insider, and Huffington Post among others. She is currently based in northern England.

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