Migrants who lost their lives in a boatwreck are buried in Sfax, Tunisia on June 11, 2020 | Photo: picture-alliance
Migrants who lost their lives in a boatwreck are buried in Sfax, Tunisia on June 11, 2020 | Photo: picture-alliance

Forensic scientists in Tunisia have emphasized the importance of identifying and cataloging the bodies of those who drown in the Mediterranean, in case any of their relatives come looking for them in the future. Yet dozens of migrants who drowned off Tunisia last month will likely remain unidentified.

Since 2017, the Tunisian authorities have been making sure, via a team of forensic scientists, that they carefully identify and catalog each of the bodies they recover of migrants who drown in the Mediterranean.

The bodies of 61 migrants who drowned when their boat capsized in mid-June have just been added to the list. Their bodies were buried in numbered graves in a Muslim cemetery near the city of Sfax, from where the boat is thought to have set off.

"Every clue must be noted and recorded," chief forensic scientist Samir Maatoug told the news agency Agence France Presse (AFP). Maatoug and his team have been busy gathering "photos, medical data and other information" including any "tattoos, moles, fingerprints, dental impressions and clothes sizes and brands" from the 30 men, 29 women and two children, all from sub-Saharan Africa, who were on board the ship which capsized in June, leaving no survivors.

So far, however, the only person who has been positively identified is the ship’s captain --  a Tunisian national from the local area, reported AFP.

Dozens of bodies recovered from sea every year

According to AFP, "dozens" of bodies are washed up on Tunisia's shores or recovered every year.  

Before 2017, Tunisia would bury the bodies in unmarked graves. Libya, a major transit and departure country for migrants headed to Europe, buries migrants without keeping record. 

After consultation with the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), Tunisia put more resources into trying to identify or at least catalog those who died trying to cross the Mediterranean. 

 Maatoug, who is head of forensic medicine at Habib Bourguiba University Hospital in Sfax, told AFP: "The bodies of migrants who drown must be systematically analyzed by forensics." He explained that after arriving at the hospital, each body is assigned a number, which will be written on their file and on their grave.

Helping families mourn

The process is not just a bureaucratic procedure. Maatoug hopes that his work will help relatives identify the bodies at a later date, if ever they come looking to find out what happened to their loved ones. Maatoug told AFP: "These clues can help the victims' families recognize them and finally mourn them." 

So far, since 2011, his team has carried out over 400 DNA tests. Forensic information is added to police files and all sent to the courts. The ICRC can then help families look for their relatives through this database.

Bilal Sablouh, the regional forensic coordinator for the ICRC told AFP that families can apply for information from their own country via the Red Cross or the Red Crescent. 

Sometimes the ICRC also carries out its own research, explained Anne Montavon deputy head of the ICRC regional delegation in Tunis. According to Montavon, the number of requests for information remains relatively low for Tunisia and most of the people looking for loved ones are asking about those who set off from Libya.

Still, Maatoug in Tunisia is determined to continue his work, in case one day "a son or a grandson will come to claim his father or grandfather," he told AFP. "In that case we must keep reliable records."

More than 20,000 migrants have died in the Mediterranean since 2014, according to the United Nations. More than 80 percent of them are believed to have died in the deadliest zone between Italy, Malta, Libya and Tunisia. Only a third of the bodies have been recovered.

With material from AFP


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