Warning: this story contains disturbing imagery
London: There is an “invisible catastrophe” in the Mediterranean: families who have lost their loved one beneath the waves and do not know where they are buried – or even if they are dead.
A new report says many of the thousands of refugees and migrants who have died crossing the Mediterranean have not been identified, leaving their families traumatised.
And many of the bereaved are not being properly cared for, says Dr Simon Robins, lead author of the Mediterranean Missing report and a senior research fellow at the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York.
One Muslim refugee was even told by a trauma counsellor to “go and get a girlfriend” to get over the loss of his wife in a shipwreck.
Meanwhile the dead are buried in nameless graves in cemeteries from the Greek islands to Sicily, and not enough is being done to connect them with their loved ones, according to the report, which will be officially launched on Wednesday on the Greek island of Lesbos.
In the last year and a half, more than 6000 have died or gone missing making the dangerous crossing to Europe.
“Behind the visible catastrophe of shipwrecks and deaths in the Mediterranean is an invisible catastrophe in which bodies are found and not enough is done to identify them and inform their families,” Dr Robins said.
“This is devastating for their families back home. They likened it to a form of torture where they are caught between hope and despair, not knowing whether they would ever see their loved one again, not knowing if they should give up hope and focus on the rest of their lives.
“More than anything these people want to know if their loved one is alive or dead. If they are dead, they want to bring their relative home and have them buried visibly in their community.”
But current efforts in Italy and especially Greece are “superficial”, Dr Robins said.
Several years ago it was “genuinely catastrophic”, he said: “We saw bodies buried in mass graves, co-mingled remains and no data collected.”
Now bodies are photographed, DNA samples taken and bodies buried in individual graves. However it’s still not clear whether DNA records are reliably linked to gravesites – and there is no system to get DNA from families to match post-mortem data and make an identification. Debriefing of shipwreck survivors to identify the dead is patchy or non-existent.
Families outside the EU often cannot get a visa to make the ID even if they have the money.
“The authorities are overwhelmed, they simply are not able to deal simultaneously with the thousands of living migrants coming and the many hundreds of bodies that have been turning up month by month,” Dr Robins told Fairfax Media.
“It’s a question of resources as well as political will.”
Usually a body is only identified if a surviving relative was on the same boat, or other relatives can travel to Italy or Greece in time to make the identification.
“Not only are they facing the trauma of having lost a relative, but many of them face the trauma of having experienced a shipwreck and being close to death themselves,” Dr Robins said. “They need urgent psychological support just to cope with their own experience.”
His team saw examples of people receiving “deeply inappropriate” assistance in Europe, he said.
“People have been told by psychiatric professionals that they should forget about their wife,” Dr Robins said. “One Muslim man was told he should forget about his wife and he should go and get a girlfriend and take her out for a drink – which he was deeply traumatised by, being told he should start behaving in a way contrary to his religion.
“There is a need for people to understand this is not a regular PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] type case … it needs to be treated very differently.”
Families in places such as Tunisia are experiencing “ambiguous loss”, not knowing whether they have lost a love one “or whether he is still out there and liable to come home any day”.
It is “an extremely traumatising loss that traps people between hope and despair”, Dr Robins said.
Countries are obliged, under international law, to seek to identify bodies they find and to involve families in that investigation, Dr Robins said.
“We don’t think that’s being done, so there is a legal responsibility as well as a moral one on European states to respond.”
The report suggested a central database in Europe for sharing data such as grave locations and DNA, with a single point of contact for families to find their dead relatives.
The central Mediterranean is by far the most dangerous crossing into Europe for migrants.
On Monday alone, 6908 migrants were rescued in the Channel of Sicily in 35 rescue operations, pulling them from 44 rubber dinghies, eight small wooden boats and two bigger fishing boats.
The surge came after a week of windy and rough conditions had kept would-be migrants on the shores of Libya.
Two people were reported to have died.
There has also been a surge this week in the number of migrants arriving on Greek islands, where on average 100 people come ashore each day.
Of the 3165 people who have died or went missing this year crossing the sea (as of August 28), 2725 were attempting the passage to Italy from North Africa, according to the International Organization for Migration’s figures.
More people died on this route than last year in the same period.
One woman whose boat was intercepted by the Libyan coast guard told the IOM: “I’m happy I’ll be returning. I never thought it would be worse than back home. I paid 400,000 Nigerian naira ($1000) in Nigeria to get to Italy, I never want to leave again.”
As of August 28, 272,070 migrants had crossed the Mediterranean into Europe in 2016. Just under half of the arrivals, or 106,461 (as of August 24) arrived in Italy. There, most arrivals came from Nigeria, Eritrea and Gambia.
There are still an estimated 277,000 migrants in Libya, as well as 348,000 internally displaced people and 310,000 returnees – refugees returned from abroad.
Migrants interviewed by the IOM in Libya mostly reported to have left their home country because of economic reasons – the majority reported being unemployed at the time of departure – with 5 per cent reporting war or political reasons for leaving.
“The migrants continue making the perilous journey at great risk, travelling under precarious conditions and on ill-equipped boats, leaving them highly vulnerable to both arduous travel and exploitation of organised criminal networks,” an IOM spokesman said.