Europe’s migrant crisis is in its third year and the death toll continues to rise. Thousands of migrants, many of them refugees, die nameless and unknown after perishing at sea, with only their bodies washed up on the shores of Mediterranean states as testament that they ever lived.
But without knowing that their relatives have died thousands of families from sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, North Africa and beyond may still be hoping that their loves ones are still alive, missing of course, but not dead.
These families are in effect suffering the cruel and unending burden of feeling indefinitely separated from their loved ones. Only confirmation of their death and the opportunity to grieve their loss will give them closure.
In practical terms the only hope comes from forensic science. Forensic laboratories, mainly in Greece and Italy, can sometimes match DNA donated by a relative with DNA from those who have perished.
However, there is no common practice to collect information about these deaths between states or even sometimes within the same country. The director of the Greek Police’s Forensic Science Division in Athens says databases must be coordinated across EU states to identify the bodies of thousands of migrants.
Despite the practical and financial problems there are successful cases, such as that of the body of a baby boy which was found floating near the Greek island of Samos in January.
The child, no more than six-months-old, had been lost in a shipwreck on Oct. 29, 2015 when 19 migrants drowned. For over two months, his body drifted more than 150 km (95 miles) north until it was recovered from the water.
In the end, police identified the little boy from a DNA sample given by his Syrian father, who was among 139 people rescued when the boat sank in the Aegean off the island of Kalymnos.
The phone number of the Forensic Science Division is now well known amongst those searching for missing loved ones. “Many people who call say they can’t get information, so we try now to serve as a link, even though it is not our role,” its director Penelope Miniati explains.
For some, the tragedies recall Greece’s own history of migration, including in the 1950s and ’60s when many escaped poverty for a new life in countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, breaking up families who sometimes lost contact with each other.
“We are Greeks, we also migrated and some people were lost in the journey… and each time people wondered what had happened to them,” Miniati says.
More than three quarters of the 4,027 migrant and refugee deaths worldwide in 2016 so far happened in the Mediterranean, according to the International Organisation of Migration (IOM).
Most died between Libya and Italy. Hundreds also drowned on the Turkey-Greece route, although arrivals have fallen sharply since a deal between the European Union and Ankara on curbing the flow in March.
Many shipwreck victims are never recovered, but about 1,500 have been brought to Italy since 2013. So far, just over 200 have been identified.
In a “policy vacuum” the action in Italy and Greece has been driven by “improvisation”, the IOM said in June in a joint report with City University London and the University of York.
The report praised a deal that Italy’s special commissioner for missing persons struck with a university laboratory, which provides free forensic work, and the interior ministry, to adopt a protocol to identify victims and inform relatives.
The commissioner records details of corpses and sends notices through embassies and humanitarian organisations asking survivors for photographs of the missing, and personal effects such as toothbrushes that could harbor DNA.
In Athens, Miniati’s office has a database with information on 647 people who need identifying, about 80 percent of them the nameless dead of the migrant crisis.
People who drown and stay trapped underwater for months are often unrecognisable, so accounts of scars, tattoos and dental cavities help. Some people come to Italy to look for missing relatives in the commissioner’s files and give DNA samples.