The local authorities that receive the most bodies are often on small islands and are increasingly saying they cannot cope.
They warn that an already inadequate system is going backwards. Spain’s Canary Islands have reported a record 35,410 men, women and children reaching the archipelago by boat this year. In recent months, most of these vessels have sought to land on the tiny, remote island of El Hierro. In the past six weeks alone, seven unidentified people were buried on the island.
The burial vaults of 15 unidentified people who were found dead on a rickety wooden vessel in 2020, in the town of Agüimes on Gran Canaria, bear identical plaques that read simply: “Here lies a brother who lost his life trying to reach our shores.”
In the Muslim section of Lanzarote’s Teguise cemetery, the graves of children are marked with circles of stones. They include the grave of a baby believed to have been stillborn on a deadly crossing from Morocco in 2020. Alhassane Bangoura’s body was separated from his mother during the rescue and was buried in an unmarked grave. His name is only recorded informally, engraved on a bowl by locals moved by his plight.
It is the same story in the other countries at the edge of the EU; unmarked graves dotted along their frontiers standing testament to the crisis. Along the land borders, in Croatia, Poland, Lithuania, the numbers of unmarked graves are fewer but still they are there, blank stones or sometimes an NN marked on plaques.
In France, the anonymous inscription “X” stands out in cemeteries in Calais. The numbers seem low compared with those found along the southern coastal borders: 35 out of 242 migrants and refugees who died on the Franco-British border since 2014 remain unidentified. The high proportion of the dead identified reflects the fact that people spend time waiting before attempting the Channel crossing so there are often contacts still in France able to name those who die.
Unmarked grave sites across Europe
Guardian graphic. Source: Guardian and partners' research