EWING, New Jersey — According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, over 1,000 people have died in the Mediterranean attempting to get to Europe from North Africa. The great majority of their bodies go unidentified by the E.U., providing families with little of the closure required for when a loved one passes.
In the first half of 2014, 75,000 refugees and migrants from Africa arrived in Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta. It is an increase over last year’s total of 60,000, and 2012’s total of 22,500. In addition to this rise in migration, there has also been a subsequent rise in the death count of those attempting the journey. In 2013 and 2012, the death tolls were 600 and 500 respectively, while in ten days alone during July 2014, 260 migrants died.
Italy has received the greatest number of migrants so far in 2014, with 63,884. Next is Greece with 10,080 , Spain with 1,000 and finally Malta with 227.
Among these refugees are 10,563 children. Around 6,500 of them, mostly from Eritrea, came unaccompanied, with neither parents nor a family member to guide them on the treacherous journey.
It is estimated that an additional 21,000 arrivals have landed in Italy since July 1.
Of these, most of the migrants hail from Eritrea, Syria and Mali; three countries alike in their instability, widespread poverty and high rates of internal conflict.
Most migrants attempt the journey by leaving Africa via Libya.
It is a dangerous journey for those that try to do so. For many coming from West African nations, they must go through the Sahara Desert first, a perilous journey in and of itself, where many die before they are able to reach Libya and attempt the journey by boat to Europe.
Once in Libya, smugglers take advantage of these migrants, offering boat rides to Europe in return for what generally amounts to all their life savings. The ride is often a cramped and dangerous one.
Refugees who have survived the journey tell of overcrowded dinghies, that are barely seaworthy, in which they are put without either food, water or life jackets.
The journey itself takes about one to four days, although there have been cases of people becoming stranded for up to two weeks at sea.
Many of those who survive the journey end up in detention centers where they are held indefinitely. In 2012, Italy had roughly 80,000 illegal migrants detained and sent to these camps. Only 4,000 were deported.
Alberto Barbieri, who visited Italy’s 13 detention centers while heading a task force for Doctors for Human Rights, described these centers as “useless places of human suffering.”
Meanwhile, as people continue to arrive in Europe and fill up more and more detention centers, the death toll is also increasing. The Guardian reported in 2013 that over the past two decades, nearly 20,000 people have died trying to get to Europe from Africa. There is a humanitarian catastrophe occurring just off the shores of Europe every day.
On July 14, 2014, Italian officials rescued 12 persons off the coast of Libya. The dinghy they were in was holding 121 people and had capsized. There are still 109 individuals missing.
On July 15, 2014 29 people were found dead in the hold of a fishing boat. They had died due to asphyxiation from the engine fumes. Survivors say that as many as 60 others were stabbed and thrown overboard for attempting to escape the hold.
Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island, is a favored destination for wealthy individuals in the summer, and an equally favored destination for these refugees all year round.
On October 3, 2013 over 350 migrants died in a ship wreck off the island. It was a tragedy that brought international attention to this issue, and helped spawn the Mare Nostrum initiative later that month. The Mare Nostrum is a search-and-rescue mission done by the Italian Navy that, so far, has saved tens of thousands of lives since its implementation. It is a humanitarian operation complete with an arsenal of “amphibious ships, unmanned drones, and helicopters with infrared equipment” as navy personnel search for those stranded at sea.
However, despite the widespread attention by the international community over this particular tragedy and the fact that almost all the bodies were recovered, more than half of the bodies remain unidentified.
The International Committee of the Red Cross held a conference in 2013 to discuss and hopefully resolve this issue concerning the lack of identification. What it found was that the identification process was being impeded by a lack of databases for the bodies, as well as a lack of communication between regional and international institutions.
Though the recommendations to resolve these issues came out of the conference, their implementation has been slow.
It is a problem that is complicated by the logistics of the situation, as it requires linking the countless dead migrants back to their countries of origin and using databases there to find their families and closest relations. However, the main impediment has not been the logistics. It has been the lack of political will.
Andreas Kleiser of the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) while acknowledging the various complexities of the situation, has stated that similar efforts in the wake of natural disasters had been previously and successfully undertaken by the international community.
“If you go back to the  tsunami in Thailand, you had about 8,500 victims, among them many tourists from all over the globe. So you had to find the family members and get the DNA references and that was done. Interpol and national police forces cooperated to ask family members for DNA samples. So it can be done, but it takes a mechanism to coordinate these things and you need money.”
In 2013, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the ICMP signed an agreement whereby they hope to use DNA testing, as well as ICMP’s databases on the victims, and IOM “presence” in their countries of origin in an attempt to identify the bodies. So far, no programs have been created as a result of this, and there is widespread agreement that for something to be done about this issue, it most be done by the E.U.
However, action by the E.U. on this issue remains almost nonexistent. There is no centralized system in the E.U. to identify the bodies. Nor is there any budget allocated by the E.U. for the burial of these dead migrants and refugees.
And so, as families wonder what has happened to their loved ones and the living arrive to find detention centers waiting for them, the dead are simply buried into unmarked graves where they remain, unidentified.
– Albert Cavallaro