What happens to the bodies of those who die in the Mediterranean?

Researchers, police, coroners and an imam in Sicily work hard to identify dead refugees and give them a proper burial.

An unidentified migrant grave in Catania''s cemetery
An unidentified migrant grave in Catania's cemetery [Stefania D'Ignoti/Al Jazeera]

Catania, Sicily – On All Soul’s Day, around three kilometres from the port in the Sicilian city of Catania, the pauper’s grave at the Monumental Cemetery is unusually well-tended, with fresh flowers and beads wrapped around cross-shaped headstones.

Many belong to refugees and migrants who died at sea while trying to reach Europe. Sicilian cemeteries currently host the remains of more than 2,000 of them.

The Mediterranean route is fraught with danger. So far this year, more than 2,000 people have died while crossing the sea, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Local authorities here recover on average only one in 10 bodies, which usually remains unidentified.

“An overall indifference has led to a higher non-identification rate of most bodies,” says Giorgia Mirto, a Sicilian anthropologist and founder of Mediterranean Missing, a database project collecting names of the identified dead refugees and migrants. “They just become statistics instead of humans.”

After spending her time in cemeteries across the island, Mirto has identified a trend. 

“Here, migrants become part of the community. I noticed average citizens bringing flowers and praying over their graves,” she says. “‘[It is] part of a Catholic mindset that instils the idea of taking care of the dead, in place of those who can’t afford or aren’t able to pay a visit.”

Aid workers of Proactiva Open Arms recover dead bodies of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean [File:Santi Palacios/AP Photo]
Aid workers of Proactiva Open Arms recover dead bodies of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean [File:Santi Palacios/AP Photo]

In August, local policeman Angelo Milazzo accompanied a Jamal Mekdad, a Syrian man and his two children who had travelled from Denmark, to the cemetery of Melilli, a port village in Syracuse, eastern Sicily. 

They were visiting the grave of their wife and mother, who died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2014.

“Remembering that day still brings me tears,” Milazzo says.

He is part of a police unit trying to prevent undocumented migration and was present on the day the Syrian woman perished, that day he saw the bodies of 24 people.

From that moment, his work went well beyond the duties of his job as he made it his mission to try and identify the dead – often outside his working hours – spending time in port towns, cemeteries and searching on Facebook.

Most victims do not carry identification documents, such as passports, so the first step is collaborating with coroners who examine the bodies and provide forensic police with information about the refugees’ DNA, origin, height, weight and gender, as well as pictures of clothing and notes of distinctive features or objects they had.

“These reports are sent to our police unit, as well as to migrant help centres hosting survivors of shipwrecks, who can help identifying some of the victims, as usually, they travel with family members,” Milazzo says.

I think it's a doctor's duty, actually any human being's duty, to give back dignity, importance and most of all an identity, to those who've represented something in someone else's life. It's called Mediterranean compassion, and we Sicilians know that well.

by Antonella Argo, coroner

Some of the coroners in charge of examining bones and clothes were, like Milazzo, touched on a personal level by the tragedy.

Antonella Argo, a coroner in Palermo, Sicily’s capital, examined the bodies of several drowned migrants. 

“The frustration in this job can be tough. I remember one time, during a major shipwreck in 2016, my team and I were in charge of helping provide information about 52 bodies. We only managed to identify 18,” Argo explains.

“I think it’s a doctor’s duty, actually any human being’s duty, to give back dignity, importance and most of all an identity, to those who’ve represented something in someone else’s life. It’s called Mediterranean compassion, and we Sicilians know that well.”

Milazzo, the policeman, began his work in identification in 2014, having received reports from Argo’s colleagues, by visiting several towns in the province. 

One of his first stops was La Zagara, a migrant centre in Melilli. 

With the help of an Arabic-speaking interpreter, he began talking to survivors, mostly Syrians, showing them pictures of clothing and giving them details.

Many provided him with the information he was looking for, as they were also searching for the missing.

A young Syrian woman, simply identified with the number 23, was on his list. 

At La Zagara, he showed a man who had lost his wife the woman’s pictures. 

“Angelo showed me a face close up from the autopsy. It was her, my Sireen,” says Jamal Mekdad, the Syrian refugee father, explaining he hadn’t recognised her at first. 

Now living and working as a photographer in Denmark with his two children, he says he’s grateful for those who helped identify his wife. 

“They do an important job of giving back dignity to the victims’ families, as well as the disappeared migrants themselves,” he said.

It took Milazzo a year, two months and 10 days to file a complete report identifying all the victims from the 2014 shipwreck, allowing Italian authorities to issue official death certificates. 

He runs a Facebook page, posting details about the dead and exchanging messages with people searching for answers.

“Facebook has been crucial in collecting information about the disappeared and to get in touch with relatives,” Milazzo says. 

“Death certificates are fundamental for the relatives to move on and think about the future, carry on their lives, be entitled to inheritance and get peace of mind.”

‘They deserve to rest in peace’

The 2014 case was, however, an exception.

Most families remain in the dark about their relatives.

But once an identity is settled, the search for a burial site begins.

Abdelhafid Kheit, an imam, gives refugees who have died a Muslim burial ceremony [Stefania D'Ignoti/Al Jazeera]
Abdelhafid Kheit, an imam, gives refugees who have died a Muslim burial ceremony [Stefania D’Ignoti/Al Jazeera]

As most victims are Muslim, it falls on Abdelhafid Kheit, an imam in the community, to take care of the bodies. 

“When the refugee crisis began, I had the impulse to help, to do something not only as a spiritual leader but as a human being,” Kheit says, holding back tears.

Overcrowding in cemeteries, however, is a challenge. 

“For years, I’ve asked Sicily’s president to buy a piece of land and open a cemetery of the sea deaths. So far, my request hasn’t been answered. But I don’t give up, and will continue my advocacy to reach this goal,” says Kheit.

Mekdad remembers speaking on the phone in 2014 with Kheit, who he describes as a “gentle imam with a North African accent”.

“I entrusted my wife’s soul to him for her funeral, as I wasn’t able to attend,” he says.

Kheit supervises the various stages of burial: washing the deceased migrant’s body, wrapping it in a white shroud and leading the burial prayer. 

These experiences have been the most challenging of his career, he says.

“On certain occasions, I was asked to do these rituals on bodies which were so decomposed that I almost refrained from doing my job,” he says, “but then I continued because they deserved to rest in peace.”

Source: Al Jazeera