The families of migrants lost at sea struggle to find and repatriate their bodies
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Tunisians Atef and Mohamed drowned in February 2016 in an attempt to reach the shores of Italy. For the next year, their grief-stricken families moved mountains to find them. Faced with never-ending red tape, the families were on their own in this struggle to finally be able to grieve.
On the morning of February 19, 2016, a makeshift boat carrying 30 people from Tunisia managed to reach the waters off the coast of Siculiana, a small town in Sicily. However, when the boat was about 30 metres from the shore, the smuggler ordered the passengers to jump into the water and swim the rest of the way. Atef and Mohamed didn’t know how to swim and they drowned.
When they didn’t hear word from Atef and Mohamed, their families started desperately looking for them. They combed all of Italy, but it wasn’t until a year later that they found their sons buried in anonymous graves in a cemetery in Siculiana.
"Italian gendarmes gave me my cousin’s fingerprints"Hanen Midouni is Mohamed’s cousin. She lives in Milan, a city in northern Italy.
Two weeks after Mohamed went missing, Italian authorities recovered his body from the sea. However, we didn’t find him until April 12, 2017, a year and two months after his death.
When Italian authorities find the remains of a migrant, they take a DNA sample and make a record of his fingerprints. Then, they send samples to the consulates of North African countries in hopes that the body will be identified.
When my cousin went missing in February 2016, I went to the Tunisian consulate in Palermo several times to see if any of the DNA samples and fingerprints they had received were a match. But each time I went, the consulate staff told me that they didn’t have any news for me.
For an entire year, I looked everywhere — I went to Tunisian consulates in different cities and I visited migrant holding centres. All of it was in vain.
On April 12, 2017, I went to the police station in Siculiana. I told them the date that my cousin had gone missing. When they looked through their records, they discovered that two young men had been discovered, drowned, on February 19, 2016, close to Siculiana. They gave me photos that they had taken as well as DNA samples from the two boys.
I couldn’t recognise my cousin in the photos -- he was disfigured because he had spent two weeks in the sea. His father travelled to Siculiana, where he gave a DNA sample. It was a match. I posted photos of the second unidentified young man in Facebook groups.
Thanks to these photos, Imed Jebali, a young Tunisian living in France, recognised the second young man as his brother, Atef. He immediately travelled to Siculiana to arrange for his brother’s body to be repatriated.
"My mother can't stand the wait for my brother's body to be repatriated anymore"I was able to meet Mohamed’s family in Siculiana. They gave me the photos, as well as Atef’s fingerprints and the DNA sample. They also told me where my brother had been buried in the town cemetery.
Then, I went to the Tunisian consulate in Palermo with the samples. However, the people working there told me that they had already given my brother’s fingerprints to the Minister of Foreign Affairs when his body was discovered in February 2016 and that they were indecipherable. They told me that they couldn’t help me.
I was so frustrated. I went back to Siculiana to the spot where my brother was buried in an unnamed grave and I made a video, begging the authorities to help me.
The day after I posted this video, the consulate contacted me to say that my brother’s remains had been identified.
In the cemetery in Siculiana, I saw several graves of migrants that just said “unknown". Some of them have been there since 1994. I’m sure that some of them are Tunisians and it’s possible that their families still don’t know what happened to them.
The consulate told me that, after April 30, they don’t carry out any repatriations of remains because of the summer heat. They told me we’d have to wait until October.
But I really hope that we’ll find a way to repatriate him in the next few days, because my mom and my sisters in Tunisia can’t wait any longer. Their ordeal has gone on long enough.
When contacted by the FRANCE 24 Observers team, the Tunisian consul at the Palermo office, Ferhat Ben Souissi, denied all accusations of negligence.
In February 2016, we sent Atef Jebali’s fingerprints to the Minister of the Interior so that they could be compared with existing records. But, at the time, nothing happened because the fingerprints were unreadable.
The first time that Imed came to the consulate in Palermo three weeks ago, he didn’t give us any identity documents belonging to the deceased. That meant that we had no way to compare his fingerprints with those that had been collected by the Italian authorities.
In Tunisia, dozens of families who had no news of their loved ones since 2010 formed an association to demand for the repatriation of their remains. They organised a protest in Tunis on April 27 because they say that Tunisian authorities don’t care about what happened to their children.
Fatima Kasraoui is the president of the Association of Mothers of the Missing in Italy.
Our association has recorded 504 missing persons. We don’t know if they are dead or alive. Some mothers saw their children in a documentary that aired on Italian television about migrant holding centres. I was one of those mothers. I saw my son, who left for Italy in 2012, on television. So I have proof that he is alive. I asked the authorities to repatriate him, but in vain. Our association has held several protests at the Ministry of International Affairs and at parliament, but, so far, we’ve had no result.
In 2015, the authorities created an investigation commission made up mostly of members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of the Interior. This commission is supposed to carry out investigations alongside Italian authorities to determine what happened to these missing people. But so far, there have been no results.
We have always felt excluded, even though we are the people most affected by this situation. We never even met the members of this commission and they never asked to work with us.
As of February 2017, the investigative commission has collected 250 fingerprints of missing people as well as 300 DNA samples from the families of the missing, according to Abderrahmane Hedhili, a Tunisian lawyer and former member of the commission.
"The next step would require a government decision allowing the commission to transfer this information to the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs. But the government hasn’t taken a single step in that direction,” Hedhili said in a press conference. He left the commission on February 8, 2017 in protest at these hold-ups.
The FRANCE 24 Observers Team contacted the Tunisian Minister of Foreign Affairs to find out more about the cooperation between Tunisian and Italian authorities on the search for missing people. We will update this page with their response when we receive it.