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The Mediterranean Sea

Crossing into Europe via boat is dangerous and has claimed thousands of lives. Here we explore how forensic anthropology can help in this context.
An overcrowded boat transporting lots of refugees. A number of them are in the water.
© Ggia (creative commons)

Another example of migration is localised around the Mediterranean Sea and its regions. In the Mediterranean region, there are both land and sea routes that migrants are taking to access Europe. As of February 7th 2020, 7,168 migrants have arrived by sea routes in 2020.

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”.

The specific environmental taphonomic factors here present particular challenges for forensic investigators.

Identification of the dead

The need to identify the dead is included in international law. With this in mind, the scale of the deaths means that there are significant humanitarian consequences. The ICRC have developed general recommendations as defined in their ICRC Policy paper on Missing migrants and their families:

Prevent migrants from going missing:

  • Recognize that migration policies and laws can have an impact on the risk of migrants going missing, and regularly review them to reduce this risk and to ensure they are in line with international legal obligations.

  • Enable migrants and their families to establish, restore, or maintain contact along migratory routes and at destination, if they wish to do so, including in places of detention.

Facilitate the search for and identification of missing migrants:

  • Standardize the collection of information about missing migrants and dead bodies at national and transnational levels, and establish clear pathways for data to be collected, accessed and shared for the sole humanitarian purposes of clarifying the fate and whereabouts of missing migrants and informing their families, in accordance with internationally accepted data-protection and forensic standards.

  • Ensure that the remains of dead migrants are handled with dignity and take all possible measures to facilitate their immediate, or future identification.

Address the specific needs of families of missing migrants:

  • Support families of missing migrants throughout the search and identification process.

  • Ensure that families of missing migrants are able to exercise their rights and access existing services and other support to meet their specific needs, including by clarifying the legal status of a missing migrant.

The forensic challenge of this context comes from two key issues; The first is that the migrants are unknown, therefore making a positive identification is extremely difficult. The second is that many die in the sea, which makes recovery hard, the remains 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.

There are multiple ICRC programs and operations in relation to the missing and migration. The Missing Migrants Project is just one of these programs. More information on this inititative, including the data on migrant numbers, can be found here.

© Durham University & ICRC
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Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology

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