Bodies also piling up in morgues across continent as countries accused of failing to meet human rights obligations
Refugees and migrants are being buried in unmarked graves across the European Union at a scale that is unprecedented outside of war.
The Guardian can reveal that at least 1,015 men, women and children who died at the borders of Europe in the past decade were buried before they were identified.
They lie in stark, often blank graves along the borders – rough white stones overgrown with weeds in Sidiro cemetery in Greece; crude wooden crosses on Lampedusa in Italy; in northern France faceless slabs marked simply “Monsieur X”; in Poland and Croatia plaques reading “NN” for name unknown.
The European parliament passed a resolution in 2021 that called for people who die on migration routes to be identified and recognised the need for a coordinated database to collect details of the bodies.
But across European countries the issue remains a legislative void, with no centralised data, nor any uniform process for dealing with the bodies.
Working with forensic scientists from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other researchers, NGOs and pathologists, the Guardian and a consortium of reporters pieced together for the first time the number of migrants and refugees who died in the past decade along the EU’s borders whose names remain unknown. At least 2,162 bodies have still not been identified.
Some of these bodies are piling up in morgues, funeral parlours and even shipping containers across the continent. Visiting 24 cemeteries and working with researchers, the team found more than 1,000 nameless graves.
These, however, are the tip of the iceberg. More than 29,000 people died on European migration routes in this period, the majority of whom remain missing.
The problem is “utterly neglected”, according to Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatović, who has said EU countries are failing in their obligations under international human rights law.
“The tools are there. We have the agencies and the forensic experts, but they need to be engaged [by governments],” she said. The rise of the hard right and a lack of political will were likely to further impede the development of a proper system to address “the tragedy of missing migrants”, she added.
Instead, pockets of work happen at a local level. Pathologists, for example, collect DNA samples and the few personal items found on the bodies. The clues to lives lost are meagre: loose change in foreign currency, prayer beads, a Manchester United souvenir badge.
The lack of coordination leaves bewildered families struggling to navigate localised, often foreign bureaucracy in the search for lost relatives.
Supporting them falls to aid organisations such as the ICRC, which has recorded 16,500 requests since 2013 for information to its programme for restoring family links from people looking for relatives who went missing en route to Europe. The largest number of requests have come from Afghans, Iraqis, Somalians, Guineans and people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea and Syria. Only 285 successful matches have been achieved.
And now even some of this support is about to disappear. As governments cut their aid budgets, the ICRC has been forced to refocus its reduced resources. National Red Cross agencies will continue the family links programme but much of the ICRC’s work training police and local authorities is being cut.