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Sicily’s Missing-Migrant Detectives

Meet the Italians driven by a sense of history and humanity to identify the refugees and migrants who have died trying to cross the Mediterranean.

Written by Leanne Tory-Murphy Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
The graves of migrants who died while trying to reach Italy on the island of Sicily. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Giorgia Mirto gestures at the lines of simple metal rods topped with laminated signs in a forgotten corner of a crowded cemetery in the Sicilian port city of Palermo. The signs, stained with rust and mildew, read “sconosciuto” or ignoto” – they mark the graves of the unidentified victims of migrant shipwrecks.

Mirto’s animated presence and bright blue eyes bely the gravity of her mission. As one of the founders of the Mediterranean Missing Project, she has dedicated her life to documenting what she calls border deaths, people who die or go missing while crossing the sea.

The Mediterranean has been the deadliest migratory route in the world in recent years, with more than 8,000 deaths in 2016 and 2017. So far in 2018 there have been more than 600 deaths. The vast majority of the bodies of deceased migrants that are found remain unidentified, and many are never found at all, leaving thousands of families in the dark as to the fate of their loved ones.

Mirto has spent years analyzing news reports, poring through police documents and visiting rows of unnamed graves in towns and cities throughout Italy’s south. Her quest is motivated by a sense of obligation and her own history of loss. Her grandfather was kidnapped by the Mafia and never seen again. “We don’t know what happened,” she says, “no one has been charged and we never got the body in order to bury it.”

When people die in a “mass disaster” – more than five deaths – the standard procedure developed by the Red Cross is to begin Disaster Victim Identification, a process driven by forensic police and medical specialists. Despite the dozens of shipwrecks on the Central Mediterranean route since 1990 only three cases have been treated as mass disasters by Italy’s interior ministry. This means that whether victims are identified or not is entirely at the discretion of local authorities.

When there is a plane crash, victims are identified and families informed. Mirto compares what has happened in the Mediterranean to multiple plane crashes but says the resources and will to identify the victims has most often been lacking.

Part of the problem is that in order for police departments to invest resources in the identification of bodies there needs to be a criminal prosecution. The only substantial source of prosecutions has been misplaced ones against migrants pressed to become boat drivers – an unfortunate prerequisite.

“A wife should know that she is now a widow. She can start to inherit her husband’s things, she can remarry, her children may be entitled to state benefits.”

The cost of not knowing for bereaved families goes beyond the emotional. “A wife should know that she is now a widow,” says Mirto. “She can start to inherit her husband’s things, she can remarry, her children may be entitled to state benefits.”

Following a shipwreck off the Libyan coast on August 24, 2014, it fell to police inspector Angelo Milazzo, in Siracusa, Sicily, to identify the victims. Having had previous experience with another shipwreck some years before, as well as having worked on investigations of online crime such as pedophilia and child pornography, he was able to refine a social media-based approach to migrant victim identification, and managed to identify 22 of the 24 deceased within two weeks.

Milazzo started with survivor testimony, working with an interpreter to get as much information as possible about the victims. He and the interpreter simultaneously searched Facebook and Arabic news sites (the passengers were Syrian) for news on the shipwrecks and for family members searching for their loved ones. Sometimes he would receive direct phone calls, saying for example, “‘I am this person’s mother, I haven’t heard from him in three, four or five days. His ship sank. I want to know whether he is alive or dead,’” Milazzo recounts to Mirto. “What am I supposed to do?” he says. “I shouldn’t tell them?”

Milazzo’s experience identifying the victims of the August 2014 shipwreck is an exception. Between 1990 and 2013 for example, only one in five of the bodies brought to Sicily following sinkings were identified. This is due to the enormous variability in procedures in the various prefectures and the ways that corpses are managed and transported, often becoming difficult to trace.

The police investigation is only the first step. The police will notify the public prosecutors’ office and in some cases an investigation is launched into the circumstances of the death. Sometimes a coroner will examine the bodies, take DNA samples and write up a report, but often this procedure is skipped and the health authority simply issues a death certificate.

Then the search for a burial site begins. Simply put, Italian cemeteries are very full. Plots tend to be owned or leased by families, and remains are regularly exhumed and stored above ground in order to make room. An unclaimed body will be transported to wherever there is space. The practices may range anywhere from individual families offering space to deceased migrants in their family plot to large mass graves.

Abdelhafid Kheit is the president of the Islamic Community of Sicily and has been an imam in the eastern city of Catania for over 20 years. He says that it is difficult to follow traditional burial practices because the bodies often arrive in a high state of decomposition due to the sea water. The first time he was asked to oversee the process, he says, he was taken aback by the state of the corpses. “It remains one of the most difficult memories of my life,” he says.

“The beautiful thing is not to remain indifferent to others’ suffering. It is human work, and one discovers himself through this work.”

Kheit describes the burial services he performs in Catania as “a moment of invocation, of memory… also a moment of pain, and of sharing that pain with everyone.” Despite the difficulty of his task he says that, “the beautiful thing is not to remain indifferent to others’ suffering. It is human work, and one discovers himself through this work.” He recalls one funeral in particular when 17 cadavers were brought to Catania and they were able to find a place for them through collaboration with the mayor and a local university. The graves were adorned with verses from the poem “Migrations” by Nigerian Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka.

“Loose sands dog my steps. Loose sands Of deserts, of chiseled seabed shrouds – For some went that way before the answer Could be given – will there be sun? Or rain? We’ve come to the bay of dreams.”

Mirto is concerned that the lack of attention given to counting, tracing and identifying migrant deaths at sea means that “this part of our history is being denied.” She hopes that the families of victims, whom she calls “the most invisible part of this whole tragedy,” will find truth, justice and eventually, peace.

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