Migrant journeys: respecting the dead

Migrant journeys: respecting the dead


Written by: Frances Webber

An interview with Catriona Jarvis, former judge of the United Kingdom Upper Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber), and now a writer/ activist on human rights initiatives. 

Frances Webber: You have recently become involved in demanding a European-wide system for registering deaths at the borders, identifying bodies, notifying relatives and facilitating entry for burial. How did you become involved?

Catriona Jarvis: From the outset of my legal career, many years ago now, I represented family members and loved ones at inquests, aiming to ensure that their rights, and the dignity of those who had died were respected. The treatment of the dead and their loved ones is something that has long been of importance to me.

More recently, I’ve been struck by the contrast between the huge efforts made after an airline crash for example, or following the tsunami in Japan, and the lack of provision when migrants’ bodies wash up on European shores, or are found in deserts, inside lorries or having fallen from the landing gear of aircraft. I have been working with others, including Stefanie Grant and Syd Bolton, on an outline of a proposed guiding legal framework, that will likely start as a Europe-wide initiative, but, we hope, become a global framework. statewatchI say more about that in the ‘Viewpoint’ piece, ‘In Potters’ Fields’, that has just been published by Statewatch.

But not long after I had begun that work, I became personally involved when, at the end of September 2014, two friends were in touch with me to ask for help. On holiday in Ikaria, a Greek island close to the Turkish coast, they had seen the body of a young man being carried from the shore. They had been haunted by the image, and wanted to know what could be done to try to find out what had happened to the body, to try to find out who he was and to somehow let his family know what had happened and where their son, brother, uncle, perhaps husband or father now was.

How difficult is it to identify someone and contact relatives, or for relatives trying to find out if a loved one is dead?

In Greece, which is the country I know most about, it is theoretically possible for there to be a good chain of communication between, for example, the coastguard; the coroner; the hospital; the mortuary; the district attorney, the police; the International and National Committees of the Red Cross and the Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as other NGOs, and of course with the family and loved ones of the deceased. flowers seaAnd Greek law does require the police to use their best efforts to search for and find any person reported missing, no matter what their nationality or immigration status, and if they are unsuccessful, to make a formal declaration to the Deputy Directorate for Criminal Investigation. But in practice, the police appear not to actively search for any person reported missing. And the forensic pathologist I spoke to from the ICRC said neither it nor the national Red Cross committee would issue notice of a death; they only respond with information when a relative makes contact.

Of course, as he pointed out, Greece has no funds for such things, their resources are stretched and existing organisations are already facing huge challenges.

There is a formal procedure for judicial recognition of absence, but it is very lengthy and applies only to Greek nationals and foreigners based in Greece or with real property there. This creates real difficulties for surviving family members, as authorities ask for proof of death before accepting that a survivor is entitled to inherit any property, to a welfare benefit or even to re-marry.

So were you able to help?

Through Iosif Kovras,[1] I contacted Efi Latsoudi, who works as a volunteer for The Village of All Together, a network based on Lesbos that takes a strong anti-racist stance including one of solidarity with refugees and others who are or may be at risk from racist behaviour from whatever source.[2] Efi also helps to ensure identification of those who have lost their lives; to enable families to reclaim their dead, and to allow decent burial. Through Efi and the man from the ICRC, I found that the young man was a 22-year-old Syrian who had had his passport with him together with some photographs that had been in a ‘banana bag’ tied round his waist. His body had been moved to the island of Syros and was in the hospital mortuary there. DNA samples had been taken and preserved. We learned that a body would be kept in the refrigerator of the hospital for about three months while the coroner waited for it to be claimed, and the municipality would then provide a decent funeral with a name or a number on the grave, although there was no Muslim graveyard on the island and the authorities would not provide a Muslim funeral. We were concerned that the man would be buried before his relatives had been found.

What happens to unclaimed bodies?

lesbos-refugeesUnclaimed and unknown bodies are buried, although on Lesbos now, the community is really struggling as a result of the increase in shipwrecks and, inevitably, of deaths at sea. A temporary morgue has been installed at the hospital, but the island’s cemeteries are full and the mayor is trying to find new places to use as burial grounds. The general practice across Greece seems to be that three years after the burial the bones are removed and discarded, meaning that any family or loved one searching for someone would not be able to find them after that time.

The coroner agreed to postpone the burial for two or three weeks, and to ask the coastguard to provide identity details. The head coastguard on Ikaria had himself made efforts to find the family, through the Syrian Embassy in Bulgaria – the nearest to Greece – and through the internet, to no avail. But with the personal identity of the young man and copies of some photographs, we could use social media. We entered his details on Facebook, with an almost instant result. Two people got in touch who turned out to be his brothers. They were also Syrian. With the help of those who could translate and interpret between Arabic and other languages, it was possible to explain the situation. One brother travelled to Turkey, from where their youngest sibling had set off. The family wanted to travel to Greece immediately to recover his body. But refugees and asylum seekers can’t easily get visas to travel in such a situation. It would be very expensive to take the body to Turkey, or back to Syria, even if they managed to get permission to transport the body and visas for themselves. In fact they did not have formal refugee status, or any status in Turkey.

After communication with the Red Cross, two relatives managed to travel to Syros in mid-December. They identified the body as their brother’s. As it was not possible to take him to Turkey, it was agreed that his body be transferred to Komotini in northern Greece, to be buried in the country’s only Muslim cemetery. There he has been laid to rest in a marked grave after an appropriate funeral ceremony attended by family members. His burial place is known. It can be visited by his loved ones. The family can grieve.

Do you know what happens in other countries besides Greece? Is there any acknowledgement of responsibility by European states?

Most governments do not even count deaths. The IOM has begun systematically recording and publishing numbers of deaths. Prof. Dr. Thomas Spijkerboer of VU University, Amsterdam suggests that ‘the increasing number of deaths may be in part an unintended side-effect of European policies.’[3] He and his colleague Tamara Last have launched The Deaths at the Borders Database for the identification of deceased migrants. A European Migrant Death Observatory is proposed as part of the Council of Europe.

asylumIn July 2014, the Italian government established a commission to identify those who drowned in two shipwrecks off Lampedusa in October 2013, whose bodies were found but whose names are still unknown. Some 150 survived when a boat carrying more than 500 refugees sank. The commission will interview relatives and try to establish identity through photographs, documents, personal possessions and DNA testing.

Malta did arrange a funeral on 23 April 2015 for twenty-four of those who had drowned in a shipwreck, as an acknowledgement of the dead as human beings who were entitled to respect and a dignity that included the public ritual of a funeral. But it took place very soon after the bodies were recovered and they were buried in numbered coffins. Twenty-eight people survived while more than eight hundred perished.  None of the dead appeared to have been identified. We don’t know what efforts had been made to identify those who died, to ensure that evidence was kept that could be linked to the deceased in future, or to contact family and loved ones back home so that they might attend the funeral or recover their loved ones – the media reports were silent on it.

In Sicily, Christina Catteneo and others have been working at a temporary laboratory and have identified 28 bodies following a shipwreck in April this year. There is a goal of creating a European database that includes DNA. The management of deceased migrants’ bodies has become crucial for the countries at the frontline of the crisis, such as Italy, Greece and Malta.

What changes would you like to see?

As I’ve said in the Statewatch piece, ‘In Potters’ Fields’, I believe there’s a real need at least to develop best practice and procedure protocols, and preferably stronger measures, including visa regimes, to address the rights and the treatment of those who die, their relatives and loved ones, not only within the EU, perhaps through the Council of Europe, but worldwide. It may be that ultimately such an international framework should emanate from the United Nations.

© Terri Potoczna (www.terriphotography.com)
© Terri Potoczna (www.terriphotography.com)

Many countries have no rules or requirements to investigate, record the identity of those who die at their borders, or to preserve personal possessions, and make information available to relatives. There is no standard practice for correlating information which is collected, either nationally or between different states. Local authorities along the EU’s external borders are left to their own devices to deal with those who die during the crossing, without national or European assistance or supervision. Although the techniques needed for identification exist, like DNA testing, there isn’t yet an international framework which sets out what information to collect and how to share it.

Where states fail to take all reasonable steps to safeguard and identify the dead so as to enable surviving family to recover, lay to rest and mourn their loved ones, potential breaches of the right to dignity and to freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment arise, as well as failure to respect the right to family life and to physical and moral integrity of those left behind.[4]

It’s also vitally important to family that a death certificate is promptly issued so that inheritance rights can be established and, in the case of a spouse, to allow re-marriage – so the law on presumption of death may need re-visiting, where it exists, or creating, where it doesn’t.

When an unclaimed body is buried, the bones – or at least a sample bone from each body – should be held in an ossuary or other suitable place, so that with the help of local records, even the next generation of the family would have a chance of finding their relative.

And finally, across Europe, and indeed globally, there is an urgent need for a new visa regime to allow not only humanitarian visas for those fleeing serious harm, but also visas to permit lawful movement of bereaved family members and procedures for repatriation of bodies in such situations.

Related links


IRR report: Unwanted, unnoticed: an audit of 160 asylum and immigration related deaths in Europe

IRR briefing paper: Driven to Desperate Measures: 2006-2010

IRR briefing paper: Accelerated removals: a study of the human cost of EU deportation policies, 2009-2010

IRR report: The deportation machine: Europe, asylum and human fights

References: [1] A Greek academic currently at Queen’s University Belfast, and co-author of Addressing Migrant Bodies on Europe’s Southern Frontier: An agenda for research and practice (2014), Queen’s University Belfast and York University Centre for Applied Human Rights. [2] For an account of the work of PIPKA see Sevasti Trubeta, ‘”Rights” in the grey area: undocumented border crossers on Lesvos’, Race & Class 2015, Vol. 56(4), 56-72. [3] See also Leane Weber and Sharon Pickering, Globalization and Borders: Death at the global frontier (2011) Palgrave Macmillan. [4] The right of burial and the dignity of the dead are concepts long held dear, not least since ancient Greece. See, e.g. Antigone, Sophocles.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

One thought on “Migrant journeys: respecting the dead

  1. I am deeply impressed by my former colleague, Judge Catriona Jarvis’s stand and would like to complement and offer my support in any way I can

    Judge Anver Jeevanjee (Rtd)
    Upper Tribunal Immigration and Asylum Judiciary (UK)

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