The wound that never heals: identifying the tens of thousands missing in the Mediterranean

The wound that never heals: identifying the tens of thousands missing in the Mediterranean

A young Moroccan, Omar Al Riyani, in Madrid (Spain).

(Okba Mohammad)

Alhamdulillah [praise be to God], there are no corpses; none have been found.”

For the past three months, 22-year-old Ahmed Al Murshid has been living in fear of bad news from the shores of Italy, Tunisia or Algeria. His 19-year-old brother, Youssef Al Murshid, disappeared on 31 December, along with 13 other people of Syrian, Moroccan and Algerian origin, after setting sail from Oukacha beach in Algeria for the Italian island of Sardinia.

As this article went to press, there was no news of the whereabouts of these people, including six children and a pregnant woman, who left for mainland Europe on a wooden boat with 16 jerrycans of fuel and a 40 hp engine. The two brothers, originally from the Syrian city of Daraa, had first attempted the journey from Algeria on two different boats in October 2021. Ahmed managed to reach Italy, and then the Netherlands, but Youssef had to return to the Algerian coast. Hoping to join his brother, Youssef made another attempt to cross the Mediterranean on New Year’s Eve. He has been missing ever since.

The story of hope and desolation recounted by Ahmed, in a written interview, is one of thousands swallowed up by the waters around Europe.

The Mediterranean is the world’s deadliest migration route. According to the Missing Migrants Project of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 19,342 people have died and disappeared on the Central Mediterranean route alone since 2014. The IOM’s data confirms the deaths of a third of them and the rest are left with the ambiguous status of ‘missing persons’.

NGOs on the ground, such as Caminando Fronteras, which records the numbers of people who have died or disappeared on the routes to Spain, reported in 2021 that 94.8 per cent of them remain unidentified. “Most of the bodies at sea are never recovered,” says Helena Maleno of Caminando Fronteras.

The human rights defender regrets that, since 2019, the number of deaths and disappearances of people trying to reach Spain has doubled each year, reaching at least 4,404 in 2021, partly due to the tragic increase in boats capsizing on the Canary Islands route.

“The problem has been the opening of the much more dangerous Atlantic route and the closure and militarisation of the Mediterranean area,” says Maleno.

These disappearances have legal repercussions for the relatives, who cannot declare the death or distribute the inheritance, as well as the psychosocial repercussions of not being able to go through the mourning process. “Mass disappearances also have a very big impact on the communities,” says Maleno.

The fruitless search for answers is an ordeal suffered by most of the relatives. In Ahmed’s case, he contacted lawyers and NGOs, such as the pan-European and North African network Alarm Phone, which, in early January, reported three missing vessels that left from Algeria and appealed, through Twitter, for a search operation with aerial support to find them.

After making extensive enquiries, Ahmed believes that his brother may be in a detention centre in Tunisia. Equal Times has not been able to confirm this information with official sources or NGOs.

Maleno is doubtful of this possibility and points out that there is a great deal of misinformation about detention centres and prisons, especially on the Algerian side. “Disappearance in prisons is part of a narrative that families hold on to as a way of coping with such terrible suffering,” she explains.

Dreams of crossing the Strait

Twenty-five-year-old Omar Al Riyani, from Morocco, managed to reach the Iberian Peninsula in January after paying €20,000 together with other companions to buy a small dinghy with a second-hand motor. Not long before, on 30 November 2021, five of his friends, all Moroccan and under 18 years of age, disappeared after leaving Ceuta on a stormy night in a small boat without an engine.

Omar Al Riyani worked as a house painter for five years in the city of Ceuta and would travel between Spain and Morocco. He also did other jobs on the side, and that is how he met the five boys, who he worked with at a petrol station in Ceuta. “They told me they would rather die at sea than go back to Morocco,” Al Riyani said, in an interview in Madrid.

Around a hundred children and teenagers, like them, live on the streets of Ceuta with no one to look after them, refusing to stay in the centres for minors for fear of being sent back to Morocco. Most of them entered the city after the diplomatic crisis between Spain and Morocco in May 2021 and many of them try to cross into Spain on a daily basis. They risk their lives with methods such as clinging to the underside of trucks for long hours in the port of Ceuta. “Viva Madrid,” says Al Riyani, with a smile, in the capital where he now lives.

No Name Kitchen, an NGO that is in contact with the teenagers’ families, has denounced the lack of public resources to deal with such cases and society’s indifference, “which makes us accomplices in all these deaths”.

In its 2021 report on Spain, the IOM denounced that there are no specific protocols or institutions dealing with the search for and identification of missing or deceased migrants.

“Families are therefore required to fight their way through a confusing and cumbersome system to search for their missing loved ones,” says the report, in reference to the legal and bureaucratic hurdles encountered in many EU countries and the United Kingdom.

No rights in death

The president of the International Centre for the Identification of Missing Migrants (CIPIMD), María Ángeles Colsa, condemns the lack of political will in Spain and the rest of Europe to remedy the situation.

“The Ministry of the Interior always insists that it is very interested in identifying the bodies that appear in Spain, but it isn’t true; the reality is that there is no such collaboration. There are many civil servants, whose cooperation I’m grateful for, who share information with us on the quiet,” she says.

CIPIMD is one of the few civil organisations that, given the lack of resources and the apathy within public administrations, acts as an intermediary between the families and the authorities in the identification of the bodies returned by the sea.

There are cases, Colsa notes, where the body’s country of origin is not known and a photograph of a personal effect may be enough to connect families with the deceased.

Another major stumbling block is underreporting. The families are either unable to travel, held back by insufficient money or language barriers, or are afraid to report the disappearance. If the disappearance is not reported, DNA samples are not taken and it is more difficult to identify the body if it is recovered.

“There are family members who have gone [to report the disappearance], but the authorities haven’t wanted to process the report, saying that [the body] hasn’t reached Spain,” says Colsa.

In the case of the five missing boys, the search protocol was activated when their relatives reported the disappearances to the Spanish Civil Guard. If they are considered to have disappeared on Spanish territory, the case will be added to the public database of the National Centre for Missing Persons, which does not differentiate migrants from other missing persons. The lack of information, according to human rights defenders such as Maleno of Caminando Fronteras, makes it impossible to reflect the scale of the problem.

“If there are no dead, there are no culprits; no one is responsible. And here there are a series of culprits that are easy to identify, many companies linked to the arms industry that run migration control operations as a second business,” Maleno denounces.

European legislation to protect migrants’ rights, recognised by European and international human rights treaties, has moved much more slowly than migration control policy. According to the IOM, the forensic protocols need to be improved and modernised and public bodies are required that centralise care for relatives, among other measures.

A resolution on human rights and migration policy, adopted in 2021 by the European Parliament, speaks of coordinated efforts at European level to establish a joint database and to identify migrants who die in the Mediterranean.

For Maleno, those who risk their lives fleeing misery or war are faced with a very different reality: “The poor die fast and black people die even faster. The level of racism is fierce. Families are denied the right to search for and to bury their loved ones with dignity.”

“Not only are rights denied to the living, but also to the dead,” she adds.

Equal Times contacted the Spanish authorities about the disappearance of the five boys but received no information on any of them. The email response from Spain’s maritime rescue service, Salvamento Marítimo, was that its “sole function is to perform rescue operations, not to provide specific information on those rescued. Their details are taken by the security forces when they reach land.”

But what about those who never make it to land?

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin

This story was a collaboration between Baynana – the first refugee-led media outlet publishing in Spanish and Arabic – and Equal Times.