Migrants in the Mediterranean Sea | Photo: Reuters
Migrants in the Mediterranean Sea | Photo: Reuters

Martin Zamorra, an undertaker in Spain, has been struggling to identify the bodies of migrants who died while crossing the Strait of Gibraltar in the Mediterranean Sea for years. He wants to repatriate their remains to their countries of origin.

Martin Zamorra is both affable and unusual. One senses his life hasn’t taken an entirely straight path. He runs a small funeral home that sits on the edge of the A7 motorway, which links Algeciras to Malaga in southern Spain. The office looks like it has seen better days.

A former compulsive smoker (who has just quit), Zamora has gained a certain type of fame in this corner of Andalusia. His life and work have even inspired a film. "Retour à Hansala," (Return to Hansala) which was released in 2008. The scenario: an unscrupulous Spanish undertaker brings the body of a migrant back to his country of origin along with his sister, a young Moroccan woman. The journey transforms the two characters forever.

Back to reality however, his main concern on this June morning is the matter of the victims of a shipwreck that occurred in November 2018 in Barbate, not far from the Straits of Gibraltar. Twenty-six people drowned near the Andalusian port. Most of the victims were Moroccan.

At his funeral home near the Strait of Gibraltar Martin Zamorra has been working for 20 years to identify and repatriate the bodies of migrants who died at sea Credit David Gormezano
In the following weeks, Spanish judicial police succeeded in identifying 21 victims, who were repatriated. But five others did not leave Spain, forensic medicine having failed to put a name to their lifeless bodies. These unidentified remains became Zamorra's business.

Finding no answers from the Spanish authorities, he activated his contacts in Morocco. Thanks to a well-tested method, he was able to identify the victims in just a few hours.

"First of all, I need a photo. Then I need to determine which country the victim comes from. Then I disseminate the information, mainly among the contacts I have accumulated over the years. Then, usually, I get a call. Sometimes it takes time and the authorities order the burial of an anonymous body. It is up to me to carry out the procedure of exhuming the body when a family shows up and the body can be formally identified.

But most of the time, the identification of a body only takes a few hours: the survivors of a shipwreck communicate the names of the missing to their relatives. The news spreads at the speed of a WhatsApp message.

Other times, Zamorra sends photos to his contacts and to families who recognize the lifeless faces of their children.

Bureaucratic red tape prevents the rapid repatriation of bodies

However, in the Spanish judicial system, the identification of a body is not enough to authorize its transfer to Morocco. The legal system requires that a familial relationship be established and therefore that DNA is collected from those who claim the bodies of the deceased.

Seven months after the tragedy, Spanish police have still not gone to Morocco to collect some saliva or hair from a mother, father or brother.

Despite the strong police cooperation between the two countries, the bureaucracy on both sides of the strait is slowing down the process, Zamorra rants. "I would like an explanation as to who will claim the body of a drowned person and pay for his repatriation if it is not a family member or a close relative!"

Martin Zamorra loads the coffin of a 22-year-old Senegalese man who died on April 1 2019 after his boat sank into a hearse An orphan the Senegalese embassy has agreed to cover the cost of repatriating his body David Gormezano
He thinks the bureaucratic impasse may also be due to political conflicts and that there must be internal disputes between judges, which makes the situation "even more dismal," he believes. "I'm not important, but I'm the one who people send the pictures to. I get them all day long on my phone. Everyone has my number: police officers, members of NGOs..." Nevertheless, Zamorra would like things to move faster.

To make his point, the undertaker scrolls through dozens of WhatsApp conversations on his smartphone (which never seems to stop ringing). The faces of the dead and the living slip across the screen, photocopies of identity papers.

Does he do detective work? Posed this question, which he hears often, Zamorra sighs. He shrugs his shoulders and answers that his only field “is thanatology, [the scientific study of the dead] I am an expert only in the funeral field.”

When asked how he gets paid for his valuable services, he remains vague. At first he doesn’t convey any particular compassion, but underneath a seemingly dispassionate demeanor his eyes and voice betray great emotion when he describes his work.

Video of young North Africans crossing the strait sent by the relatives of a missing person to Martin Zamorra.

Albert Bitoden Yaka, a social worker from Algeciras who came from Cameroon some 20 years ago, is familiar with Zamorra and his strange quest. "He wants to help migrants, he does a lot for them. Why, and how? There is certainly some mystery, but it is as though he has a moral duty. He possesses great sensitivity, he lives with people's pain."

A recently created NGO, the International Center for the Identification of Missing Migrants (ICPIMD), estimates that 769 people died - or went missing - in 2018 alone, while trying to reach the Spanish coast. The group is asking the Spanish authorities for a little more cooperation. Until they get that, they know that Zamorra will always be there to try to solve the more complicated cases.


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