top of page
Search

The unidentified: Unmarked refugee graves on the Greek borders


  • Written by Danai Maragoudaki, Daphne Tolis, Aristea Protonotariou

  • Edited by Stavros Malihoudis and Tina Lee

  • Illustration by Antoine Bouraly


Graves marked only with a stick, graves covered with weeds: a cross-border investigation documents official indifference surrounding the dignified burial of refugees who lose their lives at the Greek border.

.

December 8, 2023

The phone rang on a morning in October 2022 at work, in Finland, where 35-year-old Mohamed Samim has been living for the last ten years or so.

His nephew did not have good news: his brother Samim, Tarin Mohamad, along with his son and two daughters, was on a boat that sank near a Greek island, having sailed from the Turkish coast to Italy.


When Samim arrived in Kythera the next day, he learned that – although weak after not eating for three days – his brother had managed to save his family before a wave took him away. He immediately went to the site of the wreck. In the water he saw bodies floating – he couldn’t see his brother’s face, but he recognized his back.


The Coast Guard said that the bad weather had to pass before they could pull the dead from the sea. The first day passed, the second day passed, until on the third day it was finally possible. The coastguard confirmed that 8 Beaufort winds and the morphology of the area made it impossible to retrieve the bodies. Samim will never forget the sight of his brother at sea.


In Kalamata, it took four days of shifting responsibility between the hospital and the Coast Guard, and the help of a local lawyer who “came and yelled at them” to allow him to follow the identification process of his brother.


He was warned that it would be a soul-crushing procedure, and that he would have to wear a triple mask because of the smell. Samim says that due to a lack of space in the morgue’s refrigerators, some of the wreck victims were kept in the chamber outside the refrigerator.


"The stress and the smell. Our knees were shaking", recalls Samim when we meet him in Kythera a year later.

 

They started showing him decomposing bodies. First the ones outside the refrigerator. He didn’t recognize him among them. They went out and changed the masks they wore, returned, opened the refrigerators in turn, reaching the last one.


“He was lying there, calm. The man you love. We were kind of happy that, after days, we could see him,” Samim said.




Mohamed Samim in Kalamata, Greece in 2022. Photo: Aristea Protonotariou

 

Unclaimed dead




Unidentified grave marked with a stick in Lesbos, Greece. Photo: Tina Xu

 

The number of people dying at Europe’s borders is growing. In addition to the difficulty of recording the deaths, there is also the challenge of identifying the bodies, a traumatic process for the relatives. In some cases, however, there are bodies that remain unidentified, hundreds of men, women and children buried in unidentified graves.


In July 2023, the European Parliament adopted a resolution recognising the right to identification of people who lose their lives trying to reach Europe, but to date there is no centralised registration system at a pan-European level. Nor is there a single procedure for the handling of bodies that end up in mortuaries, funeral homes – even refrigerated containers.


The problem is “utterly neglected”, European Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic told Solomon, and added that EU countries are failing in their obligations under international human rights law”. The tragedy of the missing migrants has reached horrifying proportions. The issue requires immediate action,” she added.


The International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Missing Migrants platform, which acknowledges that its data is not a comprehensive record, reports more than 1,090 missing refugees and migrants in Europe since 2014.


As part of the Border Graves investigation, eight European journalists, together with Unbias the News, the Guardian, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Solomon, have spent seven months investigating what happens to the thousands of unidentified bodies of those who die at European borders, and for the first time they have recorded almost double that number: according to the data collected, more than 2,162 people died between 2014 and 2023.


We studied documents and interviewed state coroners, prosecutors and funeral home workers; residents and relatives of the deceased and missing; and gained exclusive access to unpublished data from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

 

In 65 cemeteries along the European border - Greece, Spain, Italy, Malta, Poland, Lithuania, France, Spain, Italy, Malta, Lithuania, France and Croatia - we have recorded more than 1,000 unidentified graves from the last decade.

 

The investigation documents how state indifference to the dignified burial of people who die at the border is pervasive in European countries.


In Greece, we recorded more than 540 unidentified refugee graves, 54% of the total recorded by the European survey. We travelled to the Aegean islands and Evros, and found graves in fields sometimes covered by weeds, and marble slabs with dates of death erased, while in other cases a piece of wood with a number is the only marking.


The data from our survey, combined with the data from the International Committee of the Red Cross, is not an exhaustive account of the issue. However, they do capture for the first time the gaps and difficulties of a system that leads to thousands of families not knowing where their relatives are buried.

 

 

8 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Contact Us

For any information about the project, the volunteer program, or how to donate, please fill in the form below and we will reply to you as soon as possible.

Thanks for submitting!

Address 

Kara Tepe, Centre for Refugees & Migrants, Lesbos T.K 81100, Greece.

bottom of page