“Missing Migrants and Deaths at the EU’s Mediterranean Border: Humanitarian Needs and State Obligations” was a year-long research project running until October 2016, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council of the United Kingdom. Resulting from collaboration between the University of York, City University of London, and the International Organization for Migration, the project was one of the first efforts to systematically collect data and comparatively explore current responses to migrant bodies in the Mediterranean, and the impacts of a missing person on families left behind. In 2015, over 4,000 refugees and migrants are known to have died at sea while trying to reach Europe, and the death toll has continued to mount since. The majority of these people are not identified, and in many cases bodies are never found. In each case, a family is left in a state of ambiguous loss, unable to fully grieve for their loved one. Despite the magnitude of unidentified deaths and the suffering of families, states have done little to address this humanitarian imperative. This project aimed to shed light on the policy vacuum at EU and national levels, through investigating the policies and practices in Italy and Greece regarding the investigation, identification, burial and repatriation of migrant bodies. Research with families in Turkey and Tunisia sought to better understand the impacts of missing persons on families, both psychologically as well as economically and socially.
The Mediterranean Missing project was a one year research project running from September 2015 until October 2016, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council of the United Kingdom. The project was a collaboration between the University of York, City University of London, and the International Organization for Migration, and one of the first efforts to systematically collect data and comparatively explore current responses to migrant bodies in the Mediterranean, and the impacts of a missing person on families left behind. Project findings have been published in a range of reports and launched in public meetings in Italy, Greece and Turkey. Following the project’s call for legal principles to guide states’ actions, the Last Rights project developed a set of operational principles, based in human rights law, which should inform states’ policies towards missing migrants, the "Mytilini Declaration for the Dignified Treatment of all Missing and Deceased Persons and their Families as a Consequence of Migrant Journeys”. This declaration summarises the legal standards which apply to missing migrants and the rights of their families. In September 2017 The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, arbitrary or summary executions prepared a report to the UN General Assembly on the ‘Unlawful Death of Migrants and Refugees’. The Rapporteur calls for states to protect the lives of migrants and refugees as part of their commitment to the new Global Compacts for Migrantion and on Refugees, and makes a number of important recommendations to states – including an international mechanism for search, identification and tracing, investigation by states and the recording of deaths, dignified treatment of the dead, common forensic protocols, and access to justice for families.
A Summary of the Project Findings
The Mediterranean Missing research project sought to understand both the impact on families of having a relative missing in migration, and the law, policy and practice around the identification of bodies of dead migrants in Italy and Greece. Interviews with families of missing migrants from five countries confirmed the huge impact of not knowing the fate of loved ones, with families tortured by ambiguity and suffering a range of emotional and psychological consequences. In Lesbos, Greece, and Sicily, Italy, interviews with authorities, civil society and others confirm the presence of a policy vacuum around the issue of the missing, despite the duties on states imposed by human rights law. Investigation of deaths is inadequate, with effective post-mortem data collection and management challenged by the large numbers of migrants, in some cases sufficiently to compromise future identification. In both Greece and Italy, response is characterised by a policy vacuum, with a large number of agencies with overlapping mandates lacking coordination. Whilst in Italy a dedicated Commission and its partners have demonstrated what can be done with appropriate resources, there is a need to ensure that all the dead benefit from such an approach. A constraint in both contexts remains the lack of outreach to families of the missing, who can provide ante-mortem data to enable identification, and who should anyway be at the centre of all efforts to address the issue and identify the dead.