At least 700 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean sea after their boat sunk on Saturday evening. There were only 28 survivors, and only 24 bodies were recovered, according to the Italian coast guard. This follows Monday’s tragedy, which saw another 400 people lose their lives. Each time, only a tiny number of bodies are ever recovered. The rest either lie on the seabed or wash up on the shores of Mediterranean countries like Morocco, where fellow migrants and activists struggle to give as many as they can a dignified burial.
In 2014, an estimated 3,500 migrants died while attempting to make the crossing over the Mediterranean, according to figures released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The 2015 death toll is set to surpass this amount.
In most cases, the only other way to recover the bodies of migrants is to wait until the currents wash them ashore. Once washed up along Mediterranean coastlines, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of individual countries.
Laetitia Tura is the co-producer of "The Messengers", a documentary film that examines how the bodies of dead migrants are handled.
"[In Tunisia] bodies that routinely float ashore are treated like waste by the authorities. They're piled up in landfills well out of sight. In 2011, authorities dug a mass grave for the bodies. But in Tunisia, like elsewhere, the struggle to ensure that these migrants are given a dignified burial is above all the fruit of a collective effort led by individuals and NGOs."
"They rely on illegal migrants in Tangier. They are the ones who know who among them headed out to sea"
I'm often called to the morgue to try and identify the bodies of dead migrants. In Tangier, the 'mortician' [Editor's note: an employee of the morgue] is very cooperative. If any documents have been found with the bodies, he shares them with us. However, most of the time, migrants don’t carry identification.
The Tangier mortician also gives us time to identify the bodies. It's usually very difficult to recognise them as the bodies have already partly decomposed in the water.
A rare case of a body being put in a coffin in the presence of a diplomatic official. Photo by Fabien Didier Yene.
A cemetery where migrants are buried by Father Jerome in Nouadhibou, Mauritania. Photo by Laeticia Tura.
Most bodies, however, are never actually identified. If migrants don't stop in Tangier before heading out to sea, other migrants don't know them and it's almost impossible to identify them.
"The cost of repatriating bodies is huge"
In general, bodies are buried where they are found. They are very rarely repatriated because the cost of doing so is always huge.
In 2004, the royal cabinet [Editor's note: a cabinet that consists of the King and his advisors] intervened to repatriate the bodies of 43 young Moroccans that had washed up on Spanish shores. The operation was very expensive and lasted months. They carried out DNA tests on the families, repatriated the bodies and organised burials. It cost 2,800 Euros to repatriate each body. But this isn't a regular occurrence.
A group of Moroccans also drowned off the coast of Soussa in Tunisia, but their bodies were never repatriated. It was really tough for the families. They saw the bodies of their loved ones in reports filmed by French broadcaster TV5 Monde but they never saw them for themselves.
"Bodies that aren't identified are given anonymous burials by local municipalities"
Most of those who try to cross the Mediterranean in boats are Sub-Saharan African migrants. It's appalling to see the number of bodies that wash ashore each year.
A cemetery for unidentified migrants in Morocco. Photo by GADEM.
If they are identified, the job of handling the burial passes to the family or friends of the victims. In Casablanca, a Catholic burial costs around 800 euros. Occasionally, because it is cheaper, Christians are buried in Muslim cemeteries.
European countries are also confronting the difficulty of dealing with bodies. There is no EU-wide system in place to identify the corpses, so European countries carry out the task without cross-border cooperation. The job of identifying them is further complicated by the fact that migrants rarely carry documents.
Sara Prestianni works for Cimade, an NGO that promotes migrants' rights. She explains that the Italian system – a collaboration between scientists and authorities at the local and national level – is relatively organised and "at the end of this identification process, migrants have the right to be buried in a grave in their name. Local town councils handle the burials." In Spain, however, most of the bodies are buried in unmarked graves. In Greece, she adds, "despite the efforts of migrant NGOs, unidentified bodies often pile up in mass graves".
Post written with France 24 journalist Dorothée Kellou.