“Alhamdulillah [praise be to God], there are no corpses; none were found.”
For the past three months, 22-year-old Ahmed Al Murshid has been living in fear of bad news from the coasts of Italy, Tunisia or Algeria. His 19-year-old brother Youssef Al Murshid disappeared on December 31 along with 13 other people of Syrian, Moroccan and Algerian origin after sailing from Oukacha beach in Algeria towards the Italian island of Sardinia.
At the time of this writing, there was no news of the whereabouts of these people, including six children and a pregnant woman, who set out for mainland Europe on a wooden boat with 16 petrol cans and a 40hp engine. The two brothers, originally from the Syrian city of Daraa, initially attempted the trip 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. Since then he has been missing.
The story of hope and despair, told by Ahmed in a written interview, is one of thousands swallowed by waters across Europe.
The Mediterranean Sea is the world’s deadliest migration route. According to the Project for missing migrants According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 19,342 people have died and disappeared on the central Mediterranean route alone since 2014. IOM data confirms the deaths of a third of them and the rest remain with the ambiguous status of “missing persons”. .
Local NGOs like Caminando Fronteras who are recording this Counting of people who died or disappeared on routes to Spain reported 94.8 percent of them remained unidentified in 2021. “Most bodies at sea are never recovered,” says Helena Maleno of Caminando Fronteras.
The human rights defender deplores that since 2019 the number of dead and missing of people trying to reach Spain has doubled every year, reaching at least 4,404 in 2021, partly due to the tragic increase in boats navigating the route of the Canary Islands capsize.
“The problem was the opening of the much more dangerous Atlantic route and the closure and militarization of the Mediterranean,” says Maleno.
This disappearance has legal consequences for the relatives, who cannot explain the death or distribute the inheritance, as well as the psychosocial consequences of not being able to go through the grieving process. “Mass disappearances also have a very big impact on communities,” says the human rights defender.
The futile search for answers is an ordeal for most 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 and appealed three missing ships leaving Algeria Twitterfor an air-support search to find them.
After extensive research, Ahmed believes his brother may be in a detention center in Tunisia. Same times was unable to confirm this information with official sources or NGOs.
Helena Maleno doubts this possibility and points out that there is a lot of misinformation about detention centers and prisons, especially on the Algerian side. “Enforced disappearances in prisons are part of a narrative that families hold onto to cope with such terrible suffering,” she explains.
Dream about crossing the straits
25-year-old Omar Al Riyani from Morocco managed to reach the Iberian Peninsula in January after paying 20,000 euros along with other companions to buy a small dinghy with a used engine. Not long before, on November 30, 2021, five of his friends, all Moroccans and under 18 years old, disappeared after leaving Ceuta on a stormy night in a small boat without a motor.
Omar Al Riyani worked as a house painter in the city of Ceuta for five years and traveled between Spain and Morocco. He also did other jobs and got to know the five guys he worked with at a gas station in Ceuta. “They told me they would rather die at sea than return to Morocco,” Al Riyani said in an interview in Madrid.
Around a hundred children and young people live like them on the streets of Ceuta without anyone looking after them, refusing to stay in the centers for minors for fear of being sent back to Morocco. Most of them came to the city after the diplomatic crisis between Spain and Morocco in May 2021 and many of them try to enter Spain every day. They risk their lives using methods such as being pinned to the underside of trucks for hours at the port of Ceuta. “Viva Madrid,” says Al Riyani with a smile in the capital where he lives today.
No Name Kitchen, an NGO in touch with teenagers’ families denounced the lack of public resources to deal with such cases and the indifference of society “which makes us the accomplices of all these deaths”.
In its 2021 report on Spainthe IOM pointed out that there are no specific protocols or institutions dealing with the search and identification of missing or deceased migrants.
“As a result, families have to navigate a confusing and cumbersome system to search for their missing loved ones,” the report says, citing the legal and bureaucratic hurdles in many EU countries and the UK.
No rights in death
The President of the International Center for the Identification of Missing Migrants (CIPIMD), María Ángeles Colsa, condemned the lack of political will in Spain and the rest of Europe to improve the situation.
“The Interior Ministry always insists that it is keen to identify the bodies that turn up in Spain, but that is not true; the reality is that there is no such collaboration. There are many officials, whose cooperation I am grateful for, who secretly share information with us,” she says.
CIPIMD is one of the few civil organizations to act as an intermediary between the families and the authorities in identifying the bodies brought back from the sea, given the lack of resources and apathy within the public administration.
There are cases, Colsa notes, where the body’s country of origin is not known and a photo of a personal item may be enough to connect families to the deceased.
Another major stumbling block is under-reporting. The families either cannot travel, are held back by lack of money or language barriers, or are afraid to report the disappearance. If the disappearance is not reported, DNA samples will not be taken and the body will be more difficult to identify when it is recovered.
“There are family members who have left [to report the disappearance]but the authorities did not want to process the report with it [the body] hasn’t reached Spain yet,” says Colsa.
In the case of the five missing boys, the search protocol was activated when their relatives reported the disappearance of the Spanish Guardia Civil. If they are deemed to have disappeared on Spanish territory, the case will be included in the public database of the National Center for Missing Persons, which does not distinguish migrants from other missing persons. The lack of information makes it impossible to grasp the scale of the problem, according to human rights defenders like Caminando Fronteras’ Maleno.
“If there are no dead, there are no guilty; nobody is responsible. And here there are a number of culprits that are easy to identify, many companies linked to the defense industry that run migration control as a side business,” denounces Maleno.
European legislation protecting migrants’ rights, recognized by European and international human rights treaties, has evolved much more slowly than migration control policies. According to IOM, among other things, forensic protocols need to be improved and modernized and public agencies needed to centralize the care of loved ones.
A resolution on human rights and migration policy, which was passed by the European Parliament in 2021, speaks of coordinated efforts at European level to set up a common database and identify migrants who die in the Mediterranean.
For Maleno, those who risk their lives fleeing misery or war face a very different reality: “The poor die fast and the black die even faster. The level of racism is fierce. Families are denied the right to search and bury their loved ones with dignity.”
“Not only are the living denied rights, but also the dead,” she adds.
Same times contacted the Spanish authorities about the disappearance of the five boys, but received no information about any of them. The email response from the Spanish sea rescue service Salvamento Marítimo said that its “sole function is to carry out rescue operations and not to provide specific information about those rescued. Their details will be taken by security forces when they reach land.”
But what about those who never make it to shore?