Uncounted: Invisible Deaths on Europe’s Borders

One section of the cemetery in Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily has been reserved for drowned migrants. Just a few of them have names on them. Credit: Ingeborg Eliassen

There is no official record of the number of refugees who go missing crossing the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Europe. This is not a coincidence. Our investigation as published via News Deeply. For versions in Norwegian, German and Portuguese please scroll to the end of the text.

MYTILINI, GREECE – Along an empty corridor, a handwritten note that reads “Register marriages, deaths, births here” signposts the cramped office of Aphrodite Andrikou, a municipal registrar in Mytilini, the capital of the Greek island of Lesbos.

There have been an awful lot of deaths to register on this island lately. In the early months of 2016, the cooling container outside Mytlini’s hospital was often full, and staff had to lay dead bodies inside the building.

Andrikou and her two colleagues have worked many long evenings and missed many family Sunday lunches to fill out all the death protocols since late 2015.

“I’m not complaining, we must care about the dead. That is our job,” says Andrikou. “This drama and these people have become part of our lives. Often I have been very sad. There were times when I cried a lot.”

Mytilini registrar Aphrodite Andrikou takes pride in her work. – I record history. This is the most important thing – that what happens, is recorded. For a long time, this led to very long hours and insight into horrible situations. – Sometimes we don’t even know the gender of the person. Once we had a child with no head. It is very sad. Credit: Nikos Pilos

In a normal year, approximately 400 people die in the harbor town of Mytilini. But recent years have not been normal.

In 2015, 856,723 refugees and migrants made it across the narrow stretch of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek islands. The population of Lesbos is around 86,000.

The numbers have steeply declined since March 2016, when the E.U. made an agreement with Turkey to stem migrant boats. Yet the number of refugees and migrants making the longer, even more dangerous Mediterranean crossing from north Africa to Italy has continued to grow.

The Mediterranean Sea is becoming deadlier every year. The U.N. estimates that at least 5,096 people died or disappeared at sea while trying to reach European soil last year. That is an increase from an estimated 3,771 deaths in 2015 and 600 in 2013.

These are estimates rather than scientific figures. Both the International Organization for Migration and the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) try to keep track of deaths based on information from a combination of sources: national coast guards and pathologists, media reports, data from aid agencies and interviews with survivors.

But no European authority has yet taken on the task of counting the dead on Europe’s frontiers. Until then, there will be no official record of the dead.

Surveillance but No Data

It is not easy to keep a record of those who drown on Europe’s borders. Smugglers don’t keep passenger lists. They fill boats over capacity with people who often don’t know each other. When a vessel capsizes and many disappear into the water, it is often impossible for survivors to say exactly how many there were.

Yet European authorities do keep a close watch on the continent’s borders. Following the 2015 exodus, Europe has been upgrading its external border controls. Barbed-wire fences have sprung up where Turkey meets Europe’s passport-free Schengen area. Israeli drones fly over Finland’s border with Russia. Warships patrol the Mediterranean. Satellites transmit continuous images of European borders, and the European border and coast guard Frontex shares the material with all countries in the Eurosur network.

The Eurosur surveillance system has three official tasks: Reducing illegal immigration, preventing cross-border crime and and helping to save the lives of migrants at sea.

Frontex uses surveillance technology to perform parts of this mission. In 2013, the former capacity director of Frontex referred to a pilot project monitoring surveillance data collected as far away as Libya, Syria and Mali.

It appears that if any agency is best positioned to register death on the frontiers, it is Frontex.

“We are currently not equipped for this,” says Frontex spokesperson Ewa Moncure. She confirms that the agency is working on a “common pre-frontier intelligence picture,” but does not know if it gives a “full picture” of what is happening on the Libyan coast.

While the agency has satellite images that help to track ships, the rubber dinghies used by refugees and migrants are difficult to spot as they do not show up on radar, Moncure says.

Frontex does keep an internal record of the number of dead bodies picked up by its coast guard ships or other vessels participating in the agency’s border patrol operations, Poseidon and Triton (the number was 399 between January 1 and November 9, 2016, Moncure says).

But this number is not included in the regular risk analyses published by Frontex. These reports feature colorfully presented statistics on less dramatic events at the borders: illegal border crossings; people hidden in cars; fake documents, broken down by type and country.

“Maybe we will publish figures on people who are feared dead in future risk analysis reports,” Moncure says.

Recording History

Estimates are not a concept Aphrodite Andrikou likes to work with. She has worked in the municipal registry for over 35 years and takes great pride in the exactitude of her job.

“I record history. For me, this is the most important thing: That what has happened will be logged,” she says.

She painstakingly fills out death protocols after a pathologist has examined the corpse and recorded all available details. “Sometimes we have neither date nor name. Sometimes we don’t even know what gender the person was. It’s very sad. Once we had a child without a head.”

No E.U. official has ever visited her cramped office in Mytilini, she says.

But Dutch researchers have been there. In a major endeavor in 2014 and 2015, 12 researchers went to 563 municipalities in five countries along the Mediterranean coast – Greece, Malta, Italy, Gibraltar and Spain – to find out how many dead refugees and migrants local registries like Andrikou’s had recorded.

Many registries have abandoned handwritten death records and started using digital systems in recent years. The researchers helped them post-digitize all deaths from 1990 to 2013, and then filtered the data for refugees and migrants.

At the end, they had a database and a number of officially recorded deaths: 3,188.

“This is a limited figure,” says the professor who led the project, Thomas Spijkerboer from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. “But these data span over 24 years, and they come from a systematic source, as opposed to estimates, which are based on media reports and other unsystematic sources.”

He says it was encouraging to see how conscientiously many municipal employees have filled in death protocols on often-unidentified persons, year after year, in the faith that someone, someday, will come and ask for them.

Spijkerboer believes it is entirely possible to create a European database of refugee and migrant deaths.

“All we did was assemble data that local authorities had already gathered. All population registers are digitized, so this is something each country can easily do itself. They just have to customize the software. We can help them with it. It’s not hard. All that is needed is the will to do it,” says Spijkerboer.

In 2015, his research group urged European Parliament to establish a centralized “European Migrant Death Observatory.” The research group has not yet received an answer, he says.

You Don’t Count Until You’re Counted

The lack of a database of deaths has implications for European policy.

Before there is data, an issue is not recognized, defined, put on the agenda or debated, says Katja Franko, professor of criminology at the University of Oslo, who has studied how Frontex operates in what she calls “humanitarian borderlands.”

She believes Eurosur is the best mechanism to record and share information about border deaths. Until Frontex does so, death statistics will not appear in the analyses that are used to develop the agency’s strategy, she says.

“When you do make something an issue, it also becomes a responsibility. When dead migrants are made visible, it also becomes a moral obligation to do something about it,” says Franko.

Spijkerboer believes that European countries are not interested in creating a database for this very reason – it will make deaths at their borders their responsibility, rather than just blaming them on the smugglers and migrants themselves.

He argues that European states do have a reponsibility to track the dead and use the data to inform policy.

“European border policies have changed since the 1990s. The number of dead has risen in the same period. It is perfectly normal to ask if the issues are interrelated,” Spijkerboer says. “And if they are, something should be done about it.”

Lost Souls

Creating a database would also be a humanitarian measure for thousands of families who have no idea what happened to their loved ones, Spijkerboer says.

These families are lucky if they run into Efi Latsoudi, a Greek activist awarded with the U.N.’s Nansen Refugee Award last year for her work with refugees on Lesbos.

Latsoudi has helped many families searching for lost relatives access Andrikou’s registry and find Mytilini’s cemetery that sits on top of a hill, with the Aegean Sea on the horizon.

Behind rows of graves of local residents, many with marble tombstones, pictures of the deceased and fresh orchids, lies a barren field. Here, some of the simple tombstones have sunk into the soft soil. “Dilan Huseen 2015” reads one. “Alia Grgis 2015” reads another.

Refugee helper Efi Latsoudi by some of the migrant graves in the cemetary of Mytilini, Lesbos, November 2016. – They close the borders next to a civil war and a refugee disaster, without making sure there are legal routse. That is a policy which produces death. And which they ignore by not making statistics. Credit: Nikos Pilos

These are sad stories, says the cemetery’s grave digger, Efstratios Yannakis. He recalls a father who was searching for his two drowned children and found them here. Another man approached him looking for his brother. Yannakis helped him find the grave in the cemetery.

Latsoudi has plenty of stories of her own. She helped a Syrian man who came to Lesbos to try to find his wife and their small child, who had disappeared 20 days earlier. He had a European passport and had already searched the Greek island of Rhodes and 10 Turkish towns. Here, he finally found answers: The coast guard knew of the case, and Latsoudi helped the man find his family’s two unnamed graves.

But most families would not be able to get to Lesbos to track down their relatives in person, Latsoudi says. She is outraged that European governments do not put more effort into recording the dead.

“They close the borders right next to a civil war and a refugee disaster without making sure that there are legal routes to enter. These are policies that produce death, which we ignore by not making statistics,” she says.

“It is deeply inhuman. Not to see a grave. Not to have a funeral. Imagine that we should be treated this way. Why should we accept it for Syrian or Eritrean families if we would not accept it for ourselves?”

Deaths at Sea

The crew of Siem Pilot, a Norwegian vessel patroling the Mediterranean off the coast of Italy, are police, military and sailors. They have been in tough situations before.

The crew have rescued 21,617 people and recovered 91 dead from the sea since they were deployed by Norway to the E.U.’s Operation Triton in summer 2015.

“If anyone in 30 years comes asking for a dead person that has been on board the Siem Pilot, they will get answers,” says Pål Erik Teigen, the force commander, who usually heads the police operations center in Gjøvik, an inland town in eastern Norway. “We take pictures, DNA and fingerprints of everyone. We undress each one and register any injury. We supply all the information to the Italian authorities and to Norwegian police.”

November 2016: 12 drowned migrants were brought on board Norwegian police ship Siem Pilot to Trapani, Sicily, where they were taken on shore in coffins. They were among the app. 110 people that drowned when a rubber boat with app.140 people sank off the Libyan coast November 2. Only 29 survived. Three of the 12 that drowned, were children. Credit: Siem Pilot

At 4 a.m. on November 2, 2016, Siem Pilot was called to help rescue a deflated dinghy that had set sail from Libya with around 140 people on board. They found 29 survivors, from Ivory Coast, Guinea, Mali and Cameroon, and 12 dead, including three children.

“In this case we missed 99 [people]. I am thinking about that number. It’s a lot of people,” says Teigen.

One of the survivors told the crew of Siem Pilot she had lost two children and a brother. Rescuers had taken pictures of the three dead children and asked her if she wanted to see them. She identified the smallest child as her son.

“We asked if she wanted us to have a small ceremony so she could say goodbye to him. She did. It was tough,” Teigen says.

Afterwards, the mother was transferred to an Italian coast guard vessel along with the other survivors and taken to the island of Lampedusa. Her child’s body was brought by Siem Pilot to Sicily.

Teigin will inform authorities in Lampedusa that the child was taken to Sicily. But he worries about how the mother will ever be able to find her child’s grave. “It will not be easy,” he says.

This version has been published by Refugees Deeply. Read versions of the story in Norwegian on Aftenposten and Aftenblad and in Portuguese on Publico and in German via taz.