From the sea to Italy

An interview by Filippo Furri with Silvia Di Meo (Mem.Med)

1. For more than 10 years now, the issue of research for families of missing persons in migration and identification procedures has been the subject of discussion. In Italy it was thought, after the 2013 and 2015 shipwrecks, that it was possible to standardize practices and organize a centralized device capable of managing requests from families and accompanying them. The Cutro case has shown us the opposite. Can you tell us how the system “should work” or could work, and what actually happens?

Ten years later, despite the succession of deaths and disappearances in the Mediterranean, the absence of standardized procedures and coordination between the actors involved prevents the implementation of effective search and identification procedures for border victims. In Italy, the Cutro case (February 2023) has shown what we also experience in cases of so-called “minor shipwrecks,” lethal events – which silently and periodically occur in the Mediterranean with almost no media and political attention – in which dozens of people lose their lives: the right to identity and the right to know for families are systematically denied. We also witness that families are more and more demanding of truth and justice about these massacres, appealing to several international and governmental institutions who mostly ignore their demands. Mem.Med was created precisely to respond to these appeals, supporting families and communities in accessing truth and justice through legal, logistical and psychological support.

Picture: Commemoration in Cutro.

On the subject of missing migrants, many issues are mishandled: the search for missing persons, identification procedures (collection of DNA and ante- and post-mortem data), information provided to family members, repatriation of bodies to countries of origin and the related costs, reconstruction of events and access to justice.

Often these requests are not even considered if there are no requests from family members or civil society associations. Others are handled by different actors without any kind of coordination, with decisions taken almost extemporaneously from time to time without family members and survivors being informed or fully involved in the process, fueling a great sense of distrust and despondency.

Everything moves with great variability and depends on the competent authority that intervenes, the type of procedure for that specific case, and the regional and provincial practices of the territory where the shipwreck occurred.

For example, we have found that in Sicily some Public Prosecutor’s Offices require that a biological sample be taken from the body when the cause of death is ascertained, but not all Public Prosecutors’ Offices work in this way. And in any case, this practice does not imply the immediate activation of an identification procedure, even when families – by turning to local associations – report the disappearance of their loved ones and request the identification of a body. Bodies are buried within a short time, often even when families have claimed ownership of the body, as happened recently in the case of Marinella di Selinunte (October 2023) where six young Tunisians lost their lives. This issue – combined with the absence of a single database through which to store all the information on the victims and their families – hinders the posthumous identification of bodies and condemns thousands of people to oblivion, who remain nameless.

The tasks to be performed would be simple. The coroner would be required to compile a post-mortem form containing all the information about the body, special marks found, personal effects, and clothing. These forms should be uploaded onto public registers accessible to anyone so as to facilitate search operations. In Italy, there is already a national register of unidentified corpses set up by the Extraordinary Commissioner for Missing Persons, but for this tool to be really effective, the communication of post-mortem files to the Commissioner by all the forensic doctors in charge of ascertaining the cause of death must be compulsory. In addition, DNA samples from unnamed bodies and also from family members looking for missing persons should always be collected so that comparisons can be made at any time.

At the national level, there is also the national DNA database, which is supposed to collect DNA profiles of missing persons or their relatives, of unidentified corpses and cadaveric remains, and to compare DNA profiles for identification purposes. But it is not known how this institution operates and how many comparisons are made.

It would be important to have a synergy between the public prosecutor’s offices, whose task it is to ascertain the cause of death in order to assess the possible existence of crimes, and the national DNA database, in order to improve procedures and provide more effective answers, overcoming the obstacles created by the legal vacuum. It would mean to establish that, when the cause of death is unclear, the forensic scientist collects the DNA sample and transmits it to the national database for storage and subsequent, possible, comparison. Furthermore, memoranda of understanding with foreign authorities would be needed to facilitate the collection of missing person reports and biological samples also from abroad.

2. The key points are always on the one hand the search for families, the difficulties they encounter especially when they are at a distance, and on the other hand the fact that identifications not being “standardized” everything remains at the discretion of the authorities, and it becomes difficult to give families instructions on what they should do. Direct, constant, case-by-case accompaniment is needed. Tell us about how Mem-Med is operating?

The Mem.Med Memoria Mediterranea project was born on the occasion of the visit of a delegation of Tunisian mothers and sisters who, in October 2021, came to Sicily to search for their missing loved ones and denounce the migration policies that restrict freedom of movement, militarize the sea and cause the death of those who cross it. In the city of Palermo, Tunisian women drew up precise demands around which the newborn project sought to articulate a series of concrete actions, in dialogue with the experiences of a number of local and national activists and associations.

Born in 2021 and existing informally for some years, Mem.Med has three specific objectives.

The first activity concerns legal support in the search and identification of migrants who have died/missing at sea or in other border areas, by facilitating access to procedures useful for this purpose. It is the most complex activity, precisely because it responds to a systemic lack that has been ignored for decades: the absence of a single and effective search and identification system – at national and international level – for people who have died in border areas. For families, the non-recognition of the loss by states has resulted in a lack of information, answers, and legitimacy.

The right to know and access to justice are not guaranteed and the families’ struggle is therefore first and foremost a struggle for truth and justice.

On behalf of the families, our team – consisting of lawyers, mediator, researcher and psychologists – initiates the search within detention facilities (hotspots, CPR [deportation centers], similar facilities) where people on the move often find themselves imprisoned; facilitates the activation of procedures to identify the bodies of persons who have died in border contexts (shipwrecks, violent deaths in detention facilities or border areas), also through the comparison of the DNA of the bodies with that of the relatives; when possible, mobilizes for the retrieval of files relating to investigations, causes of death, death certificates and all the documentation that serves to give evidence, testimony and value to these violent deaths.

Whenever possible, Mem.Med is also active in the procedures for repatriating bodies to their countries of origin, which for the families involves not only a long bureaucratic process but also enormous efforts from an economic point of view. This procedure is not implemented so frequently both for the above-mentioned reasons and because very often the bodies of missing persons are not recovered and remain at sea.

A second activity carried out by Mem.Med is psychosocial support to the families of migrants and the communities they belong to. Left for years without answers and without truth about the disappearance of their loved ones and friends, these people are confronted with the pain and anger caused by the non-recognition of their bereavement. In this sense, Mem.Med has developed community-based psychological support strategies with the aim of fostering collective paths of self-determination and emancipation for survivors, families, and communities.

The third activity, at the heart of the project, is the desire to build, together with the people who cross, survive or witness these Mediterranean border areas, a collective and active memory. To do this, Mem.Med monitors violence and violations on land and at sea, documenting and denouncing what happens to the people who challenge the borders and the mechanisms of confinement, detention and violence underlying them. As well as collecting stories, signs and experiences of those who fought the border and lost their lives: their absence, violently determined by the border regime, continues to be for us the driving force behind a collective presence that makes memory an instrument of public claim. From this, Mem.Med promotes advocacy and awareness-raising actions by supporting the claims of the families of the missing, migrants and their communities in their demands for truth and justice.

3. The cases of bodies recovered and landed in Italy have significantly decreased. What is this situation due to?

Fortress Europe’s policies are increasingly aggressive and repressive, due to agreements with countries like Libya and Tunisia, which carry out interceptions and pushbacks at sea, through their national Coast Guards and also because of the involvement of  the European agency Frontex. Because of border externalization policies and the criminalisation of the activities of the NGO ships, many people silently disappear along the migration routes. Returned to the Libyan or Tunisian prisons or abandoned in the desert at the Libyan or Algerian border, these people are left to die at sea or on land without a trace.

For the independent and supportive actors who monitor these practices and especially for the families in search of their loved ones, it is becoming increasingly difficult to know with certainty the fate of people who dreamed of arriving in Europe and instead are turned away or left to die. We believe that so-called invisible shipwrecks and silent forced disappearances have increased, that many people attempting the crossing are left to die at sea without any recovery: boats without people on board are frequently found without any information provided by authorities. Some witnesses of this violence speak of long days spent at sea, lost in the Mediterranean, without orientation, other people die of starvation and end up at sea; even when activists alert about distress cases no rescue operations are carried out and people are left to die at sea. Some bodies return to our shores unrecognizable, others lie in the abyss and we irretrievably lose memory of them…

4. In your opinion, how could NGOs be more involved at sea? What synergies could be developed or strengthened, starting from what we have been trying to do in recent years?

We are well aware that, although bodies are identified at sea during SAR operations, it is not automatic that rescuers from NGO vessels can proceed to their recovery, transport and/or storage on board, often due to the already extreme complexity of rescuing people who are still alive, as well as the lack of adequate equipment on board (such as cold rooms).

However, if this was possible, rescue ships could play a decisive role in the tracking and identification of bodies by following a series of simple procedures.

It would be important to always collect a series of data including photographs of the recovered body, physical description and special marks, clothing worn, personal items. In addition, it would be important to reconstruct any links with other rescued persons who could provide more details about the identity of the deceased. It would be relevant to record and document what kind of procedures are implemented when the body is disembarked and which authorities are involved in the management of the body.

If, at the time of disembarkation, national authorities would be designated to fulfill the duty of the custody and identification of the bodies, this does not always happen or is done in a way that is inaccessible to the families of the people involved or to the civil society actors that support them and monitor their practices.

In this sense, the exchange of information between ship crews and civil society actors supporting families locally, such as Mem.Med, is essential to facilitate their access to the search and identification procedures for their loved ones.

These solidarity connections on land and at sea can be extremely valuable – as in the recent case of the young Bangladeshi boy, Rahman Farazi, who died on the Sea Watch ship in March, after a rescue carried out by the NGO and later identified on land. Thanks to such joint work, Mem.Med and the other actors involved can make effective the accompaniment of families in their access to truth and justice, guaranteeing not only the possibility of restoring identity and memory to border victims but also of continuing to denounce the crimes that the European border system perpetuates with impunity.

Interview by Filippo Furri with Silvia Di Meo (Mem.Med)

Mem.Med – Mediterranean Memory ETS works to support families and communities in the search and identification of missing or deceased migrants in the Mediterranean Sea through legal and psychosocial support.