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More resources needed to identify bodies of missing migrants, researchers find

Posted on 30 August 2016

A new report, by the University of York, City University London and the International Organization for Migration’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre, shows that many of the bodies of migrants drowned in the Mediterranean are never identified.

In 2015 and the first half of 2016, more than 6,600 refugees and migrants drowned or went missing in the Mediterranean after their boats capsized while trying to reach Europe. The crisis is ongoing and every day more people go missing.

The new report details the findings of the ESRC funded Mediterranean Missing Project, which was launched as part of a wider £1 million ESRC research programme, in response to the on-going humanitarian crisis. 

Over a period of 12 months a team of researchers worked on the Greek island of Lesbos and in Sicily, Italy - the two main entry points for migrants and refugees into Europe and where a large number of boats carrying migrants have sunk in recent years - and looked at how the authorities deal with the bodies of migrants.

They interviewed a range of relevant people and organisations, including local authority employees, NGOs, coastguards, coroners, and funeral office staff, as well as families of missing migrants from Tunisia, Syria and Iraq, to understand their experience.

'Invisible catastrophe'

Dr Simon Robins, lead author of the report and a senior research fellow at the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York, said: “Behind the visible catastrophe of shipwrecks and deaths in the Mediterranean is an invisible catastrophe in which bodies are found and not enough is done to identify them and inform their families.

“Under international human rights law, all states have an obligation to investigate any suspicious death, but we found that in many instances migrant deaths were not being investigated.

“If we compare this to the amount of resources and attention that have been focused on finding out what happened to the victims of the Malaysia airlines flight MH370 disaster, some 13 jumbo jets worth of migrants have died in the last 18 months, but there has been little media attention and insufficient efforts made to determine their identities.”

Often flawed

The report outlines that official investigations were limited and often flawed. Personal effects of refugees found on the beaches were not systematically collected or stored to support identification, and survivors of shipwrecks were not systematically interviewed about those who had died.

It also identifies problems in the management of data from bodies. In Italy, for example, every region stores data independently. In Greece, even though DNA samples are taken from dead bodies  and stored centrally, there is no way of linking most bodies buried in a Lesbos graveyard to a DNA sample held in Athens, because until recently bodies have not been consistently labelled. 

The main problem identified by the researchers in their report is a lack of coherent and coordinated policy concerning deceased migrants in both Greece and Italy. The policy vacuum at the national level means that local municipalities and authorities are overwhelmed and are not provided with the capacity or financial resources to deal with the nature and volume of the humanitarian crisis.

Overlapping mandates

The report states that there are a large number of agencies with overlapping mandates that fail to coordinate with one another, leading to no one being sure who is responsible for what. The different state and local agencies involved have little support from national governments or from the EU.

There were, however, some examples of best practice, identified by the researchers. In Italy, a Special Commissioner for Missing Persons has led an investigation in the cases of three large scale shipwrecks and - through agreements with relevant actors including forensic experts and police – has been supported with the resources to collect data from bodies.

The challenge now in Italy is to extend such efforts to all migrant deaths. In both Greece and Italy, efforts to contact the families of the missing have been largely frustrated, with the result that little data has been collected from families of missing migrants, preventing identifications. The result of this is bodies being buried unidentified, with little prospect of their being identified in the future.


Dr Robbins said: “More effort needs to be made to reach out to missing migrants’ families. Involving families would help investigators make identifications, as they could collect data from the family that could be matched to that taken from the bodies of the deceased.

“More than this, families could be put at the centre of efforts to address the issue. Families of missing migrants are living every day with uncertainty: European states have a moral and legal obligation to make efforts to end their suffering.”

Further information:

The project website is: – from where reports can be downloaded.

For more information about the Centre for Applied Human Rights visit:

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.


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