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The Crisis of Missing Migrants: Tens of Thousands of People Have Disappeared on Their Way to Europe

StoryJanuary 13, 2023
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Twenty-four volunteer rescue workers connected to the group Emergency Response Centre International face trial for human smuggling in Greece for giving life-saving assistance to thousands of migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, fleeing violence, poverty and persecution. A European Parliament report described the trial as Europe’s “largest case of criminalization of solidarity.” We’re joined by New Yorker staff writer Alexis Okeowo. Their latest piece, “The Crisis of Missing Migrants,” covers the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean and the tens of thousands of people who have gone missing en route to Europe. “It’s so inhumane, the way people are being forced to cross to Europe. And that is, by the way, because there are not safer migrant crossings. There are not more open migrant routes. We are forcing migrants to do this,” Okeowo says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The United Nations, European Parliament and many leading human rights groups are condemning Greece for putting on trial 24 volunteer rescue workers who helped save thousands of migrants fleeing violence, poverty and persecution. The Greek government has accused 24 individuals connected to the group Emergency Response Centre International of smuggling — for giving life-saving assistance to migrants who were trying to reach Europe.

A spokesperson for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights said, quote, “Trials like this are deeply concerning because they criminalize life-saving work and set a dangerous precedent. Indeed, there has already been a chilling effect, with human rights defenders and humanitarian organisations forced to halt their human rights work in Greece and other EU countries,” unquote.

A European Parliament report described the trial as Europe’s, quote, “largest case of criminalization of solidarity.”

This comes as a new article in The New Yorker has just been published, titled “The Crisis of Missing Migrants,” which examines what’s become of the tens of thousands of people who have disappeared on the way to Europe. It’s written by staff writer Alexis Okeowo. She’s joining us now.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Alexis. If you could start off by talking about the significance of this trial?

ALEXIS OKEOWO: Yeah. I mean, the trial reminded me a lot of what’s happening in Italy, which is mostly where I reported this article, where Italy has criminalized aid ships who have wanted to rescue migrants in the sea. It’s also encouraged Italian naval authorities, Coast Guard, not to rescue people, to the point that Italian naval officials have been charged for not rescuing migrants in the sea. And it’s just, as you said, part of this disturbing trend of criminalizing life-saving actions to vulnerable people and making even it more risky for people trying to make it over the sea to Europe, and increasing the likelihood that they will die.

AMY GOODMAN: Alexis, in your article, you write, “[Over] the past decade, the Mediterranean Sea and the shores of Italy, Malta, Cyprus, and Greece have become a vast graveyard. … At least twenty-five thousand have disappeared in the crossing and are presumed dead.” Can you lay out the scope of this problem? And tell us the story of how it impacts people like the woman you spoke to named Alme, and her son, Yafet. These are such poignant, powerful stories.

ALEXIS OKEOWO: Absolutely. I mean, 25,000, which is the estimate of the amount of people, the number of people who have disappeared on their way to Europe, is actually a very conservative estimate. It’s likely much more. But, I mean, over the last decade, at least 25,000 people have disappeared on their way to Europe, mostly while crossing the Mediterranean. Now, a lot of those bodies are at the bottom of the sea. They drowned. But some do turn up on the shores of southern Europe, of northern Africa. And usually they’re just buried in unmarked graves. They’re not named, they’re not identified, and their families don’t really know what happened to them. They can guess, but they don’t know.

And so, when I met this young woman, Alme, who’s from Eritrea, it really brought into stark relief what this means on a human level. She had left the repressive regime in Eritrea, and then again in Sudan, and took a boat from Libya, risked her life to get to Europe and then settled in Germany. And she had left her young son behind. You know, he was only 8 years old. She didn’t want him to risk his life across the sea. And she assumed that she would be able to bring him to Germany once she settled. But because the father of her son had died in a shipwreck in 2013, also making his way from Libya to Italy — he died in a shipwreck in Lampedusa, but no one knows where his body is. It hasn’t been identified. She was told that because she can’t prove the father of her son died, she can’t bring her son to Europe.

And this is a common problem. Migrants whose partners have passed find it hard to remarry, because they can’t get a death certificate. They find it hard to inherit property. They find it hard to bring their children to join them. And this is often because, you know, the parents of the child are in the sea or they’ve turned up in places like Italy and have just been buried unnamed. And while there are some efforts to identify these bodies, like a lab that I spent time with in Milan, these efforts aren’t really funded, they’re not really supported, and they’re not really coordinated on a continent-wide level in Europe.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, tell us what happens with Alme and her son. For years she didn’t see him, though they —


AMY GOODMAN: — talked on Facetime almost every day.

ALEXIS OKEOWO: Yeah, absolutely. So, Alme, after almost nearly a decade, she got in touch with the lab in Milan where I spent time, and they have been working on identifying hundreds of bodies from a few shipwrecks in Italy. Alme believed that the father of her son was in one of those shipwrecks. And so, for almost a year, they were coordinating to get the DNA from her son, to see if it matched any of the samples that had been taken from the shipwrecks. Unfortunately, it didn’t. So, that can mean he was in another shipwreck, or he was at the bottom of the sea.

But now because it’s been almost a decade since the father of her son disappeared, she can try to apply with a claim of presumed death and hopefully get him to come that way. You know, now he’s a teenager. But it’s just a heartbreaking situation. You know, she’s been in Germany for almost a decade, hasn’t seen her son in person, only through Facetime. And she told me, you know, “I know the father of my son has died, but no one will believe me, and no one will give me an answer as to what happened to him.”

And this is something — you know, the scientists at the lab I spent with in Milan told me every person deserves to know whether their loved one is alive or dead. But it seems like some people are more deserving than others, because when bodies do turn up in southern Europe, there’s no effort by the state or the police or any authority to give a name to these people and to give them some humanity so their families know what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: You write, “Thirteen per cent of the bodies of migrants who died on journeys between 2014 and 2019 have been recovered, according to estimates. The rest are still at the bottom of the Mediterranean or decomposing in North African deserts.” What needs to happen to not only recover these bodies, but to prevent people from dying? And talk about how large some of these ships are, containing, what, sometimes between 500 and a thousand people.

ALEXIS OKEOWO: Absolutely. So, there are two lines of thought. One is that for those 13% of bodies that we do have, we can have Malta, Greece, Italy, the places where most of the bodies turn up, actually take DNA samples, take photographs, put this in a database that all European countries can access, so that there’s a way for families to identify their loved ones, and then, like Italy has done once before, you know, recover the boats from the sea. You know, it can be expensive, but it is doable. So many boats just drop to the bottom of the sea, and that’s it, you know? It’s like they’re forgotten. And there is a way to deal with that.

And then, you know, as I talked with the International Committee of the Red Cross, for the people who we don’t have bodies, there is a way to interview survivors, interview smugglers, reach out to the communities from which the passengers came, in order to devise a probable passenger manifest, so that you can at least let families know this is probably what happened. Someone saw or knew that your loved one was on this boat, and they didn’t make it. You know, there is a way to do that, and there have been efforts to do that, but with not much support.

Because, you know, for example, some of these shipwrecks have just been atrocious. You know, there was one in 2015 where it was basically like a large fishing boat, like 20 meters, crammed with a thousand people. There were people under the floorboards, young people under the floorboards, people under the hull. You know, the scientist working on it later said it reminded her of a slave ship, you know, the way people were packed on there. People had to pay extra for life jackets, after already paying some $2,000 just to board the boat.

So, it’s so inhumane, the way people are being forced to cross to Europe. And that is, by the way, because there are not safer migrant crossings. There are not more open migrant routes. You know, we are forcing migrants to do this, to flee oppression and to flee so many circumstances in this inhumane way. Then a lot of them don’t survive, and then there’s not even the dignity given to their dead bodies, given to their families to identify who they were.

AMY GOODMAN: And do any countries keep databases?

ALEXIS OKEOWO: Not really. I mean, the country that has done the most, again, is Italy, because they have this lab. But it’s not really enough. It’s a very — you know, it’s a university lab, but staffed by a lot of volunteers doing this on their own time. These southern European countries have vowed to — you know, they promised. They said, “We’re going to do a database.” But none of them have submitted any info yet.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, when you talk about the reason migrants come, try to leave, as they flee persecution, violence, poverty?

ALEXIS OKEOWO: Yeah. I mean, so, yeah, a lot of them are fleeing repression, violence, economic circumstances, poverty, and also climate change — drought, extreme weather. Their ways of life have just become unlivable in a lot of the places they’re leaving. And, you know, no one really —

AMY GOODMAN: So often caused by the countries they are fleeing to —


AMY GOODMAN: — that are trying to prevent them from coming in.

ALEXIS OKEOWO: Exactly. Exactly. And a lot of them don’t want to leave. You know, they don’t want to leave their communities, their homes, their parents, their children. And yet they do. It’s astounding to me, you know, the extent to which people risk their lives to get to Europe, only to die or be turned away.

AMY GOODMAN: Alexis Okeowo, I want to thank you so much for being with us, staff writer for The New Yorker and author. Their latest piece for The New Yorker is headlined, “The Crisis of Missing Migrants: What Has Become of the Tens of Thousands of People Who Have Disappeared on Their Way to Europe?” We’ll link to it at democracynow.org.

And a fond farewell to our remarkable video fellow, Mary Conlon. Thank you for all you’ve contributed to at Democracy Now! It’s always been an honor to work with you. Now you are forever a part of our DNA — that’s Democracy Now! Alumni.

And that does it for our show. Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran. I’m Amy Goodman. Thank you so much.

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“Io Capitano”: Oscar-Nominated Film Dramatizes Perilous Migrant Journey from West Africa to Europe

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