An overcrowded boat transporting lots of refugees. A number of them are in the water.
Refugees from Syria and Iraq arriving in Greece

The Mediterranean Sea

The sheer scale of the crisis

In 2010, there were around 215.8 million international migrants (of which 16.3 million were refugees). Of this, 73 million were travelling from developing countries to developed countries. Approximately 8.7% of the European population are recent migrants. In the Mediterranean region, much of this flow of people is from North Africa and the Balkans into Italy and Spain and then beyond into the rest of Europe. In Italy alone, a country which is at the front-line of this crisis, some 15,071 foreigners were reported to the police as being missing - that is, had intended to travel to Italy but it was unknown if they arrived. Of this number, 8,153 were minors.

In 2012, Prof Emilio Nuzzolese, a forensic odontologist based in Italy, reported that:

  • 391 people died crossing the Aegean Sea, from Turkey to Greece (2001-2005)

  • 451 people died crossing the Adriatic Sea, from Albania to Italy (1991-2005)

  • 859 people died crossing from North Africa to Spain (1988-2005)

  • 6166 people died crossing the Sicilian Channel, from Libya and Tunisia to Malta and Italy (1994-2011)

  • 255 peopled died at the EU Borders, in trucks and containers on boats (1998-2011)

Note that these were just the deceased that were found and reported. The actual numbers are likely to be higher.

The United Nations Refugee Agency, in their 2015 report ‘The sea route to Europe: The Mediterranean passage in the age of refugees’ stated that “Europe is living through a maritime refugee crisis of historic proportions. Its evolving response has become one of the continent’s defining challenges of the early 21st century, with long-lasting implications for humanitarian practice, regional stability and international public opinion”.

Identification of the dead

The need to identify the dead is included in international law. With this in mind, the sheer scale of the deaths means that there are significant humanitarian consequences.

Following their assessment of the migrant crisis at the Mediterranean Sea, the ICRC recommended:

  • Increasing political awareness and support for interventions

  • Improving communications between agencies

  • Standardised procedures for forensic analysis & documentation

  • Creation of centralised databases

  • Involve institutions from countries of origin

The forensic challenge of this context comes from two key issues. The first is that these migrants and refugees are unknown, and therefore making a positive identification is extremely difficult. The second is that many victims die in the sea, which makes recovery hard, the body could wash up far from the intended destination and the water itself has specific taphonomic effects on the body.

The Missing Migrants project

The Missing Migrants project “tracks incidents involving migrants, including refugees and asylum-seekers, who have died or gone missing in the process of migration towards an international destination”. The project pulls in data from official and media sources to track key routes and allows us to understand the dangers of these population movements. For example, they show that in 2016 at least 3194 people died attempting the cross the Mediterranean, with numbers dropping to 2427 in 2017 and 1519 for most of 2018.

More information on this inititative, including the data on migrant numbers, can be found here.

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This article is from the free online course:

Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology

Durham University