Accessibility statement

Missing Migrants

Posted on 20 June 2016

Deadly shipwrecks and the bodies of migrants have become the most iconic images of the contemporary refugee crisis at the EU’s periphery, with more than 6,600 known to have died crossing the Mediterranean in the last 18 months.

‌‌The remains of the majority of dead migrants are buried, unidentified, in common graves and thousands of families in countries of migrant origin remain unaware of the fate of their loved ones. The Mediterranean Missing research project, led by Simon Robins of the CAHR, seeks to offer evidence-based policy recommendations to effectively deal with this humanitarian challenge. The 12-month project, funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council has sought to map existing law, policy and practice in states of migrant reception, focusing on the two main entry points for migrants and refugees - the Greek island of Lesbos and the broader region of Sicily in Italy, and to understand how having a missing relative affects families. Researchers conducted interviews with local actors, including municipal authorities, NGOs, coastguards, coroners, funeral offices and other stakeholders, and with families of missing migrants from Tunisia, Syria and Iraq. Research findings suggest that authorities in Greece and Italy have been unprepared to deal with the nature and volume of this unprecedented humanitarian crisis. There is a policy vacuum around the problem, marked by minimal cooperation among different state agencies, an absence of any effective investigation, and little effort to contact the families of the missing. This results in bodies being buried unidentified, often in common graves with little respect for religious and cultural expectations or the rights of the families. 

The families are the real, yet invisible, victims of this humanitarian disaster. In the absence of knowledge of the fate of loved ones they are trapped in a state of ambiguity, not knowing where loved ones are, or if they are dead or alive. If they are dead, the location of the body is unknown. Families suffer from ambiguous loss: a traumatic loss that gives rise to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and family conflict. Ambiguous loss is the most stressful type of loss precisely because it is unresolved. Existing policies serve to minimize the prospect of identification, and inhibit any communication between authorities and families, guaranteeing that families continue to be trapped in ambiguity. Initial results of the project were recently published in a briefing note ( and more information on the project can be found at: