'I Do This For The Families': The Daunting Task Of Identifying Missing Migrants The International Commission on Missing Persons in The Hague has identified remains of 18,000 people in the Balkans. Its new challenge: to I.D. the remains of migrants who died trying to reach Europe.
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'I Do This For The Families': The Daunting Task Of Identifying Missing Migrants

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'I Do This For The Families': The Daunting Task Of Identifying Missing Migrants

'I Do This For The Families': The Daunting Task Of Identifying Missing Migrants

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're turning to Europe now, where migration remains an emotional and divisive issue. German Chancellor Angela Merkel saw her ruling coalition almost collapse over the issue earlier this week.

But for some, the story is less about politics and more about responding to an enormous human tragedy. Thousands of migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean in recent years. Most of the dead are lost at sea, but thousands of bodies have been recovered.

Joanna Kakissis reports that some Mediterranean countries are trying to give the dead back their names. She begins her story in the island nation of Malta.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Addolorata Cemetery sits like a fortress on a hilltop on this island of fortresses between Italy and North Africa. Birds perch on elaborate crypts and tombstones chiseled with the names of loved ones - John, Ariadne, Carmello, Ouzeppa. There is also a plot for those whose names are not known. It's marked by a laminated sheet of paper hanging on a tree. It reads, here, 24 people rest in peace after drowning on 18 of April 2015 in a shipwreck in the Central Mediterranean.

At least 800 asylum seekers are thought to have drowned when that ship sank. Only a few of the dead were found. They arrived in white body bags at the morgue of Malta's only hospital.

Dr. David Grima supervised the autopsies.

DAVID GRIMA: There was a youngster, probably - an estimate - 10-year-old. And the others were mostly in their 20s.

KAKISSIS: He recalls that some of the migrants from that ship's sinking appeared to be from the eastern African nation of Eritrea.

GRIMA: Some had Eritrean documents. I remember a Bible actually, a scrap of paper with maybe names on or something like that.

KAKISSIS: The Bible and notes were in Tigrinya, the main language in Eritrea, a country so oppressive that it's sometimes called the North Korea of Africa.

The body bags were numbered. The 10-year-old boy was number 132.

GRIMA: We have records of his clothing, and we have photos - forensic photos. I mean, we would have the height, the hair color, eye color.

KAKISSIS: The boy wore three shirts, one over the other, and his jeans. On the back of his blue jacket were the words living the dream.

He was 4-foot-7, all skinny legs, a boy frozen in a growth spurt.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAKISSIS: The funeral for the boy known as 132 as well as the other migrants was an interfaith service outside the hospital. A Catholic bishop quoted scripture. Imam Mohammed El Sadi spoke of Allah forgiving sins.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOHAMMED EL SADI: Those who immigrated and were evicted from their homes, I will surely remove from them their misdeeds.

KAKISSIS: One of the mourners was Major Sium, who leads an Eritrean migrants group in Malta. He often hears from the loved ones of the missing.

MAJOR SIUM: We keep updating each other when there are friends, relatives, brothers - you know? - on the journeys. You would hear from one another. Someone would tell you from Sudan or Ethiopia, or Israel or America. You know, that is this network.

KAKISSIS: Some also reach out to the Red Cross. Glen Cachia at the Malta chapter hears from relatives even years after a shipwreck.

GLEN CACHIA: It's ongoing. So for the case that you're particularly referring to, I'm still getting inquiries on that one.

KAKISSIS: It was April of 2015 when the ship went down. unknown.

CACHIA: Yeah, that's right.

So I match to the date, and I send to the forensic department at the hospital in Malta for them to cross-check and see if there's a possible match of some kind. But we haven't had any positives on them yet.

KAKISSIS: The morgue at Malta does have vials of blood from these migrants for DNA analysis. What's needed is a database of relatives who have also offered DNA samples.

The International Commission on Missing Persons in the Hague is trying to help. Kathryne Bomberger is the director.

KATHRYNE BOMBERGER: So Europe - they're confronted now with a large-scale problem. And this is where we can come in because we dealt with large-scale disappearances in the former Yugoslavia.

KAKISSIS: Rene Huel is the head of the commission's DNA lab, and he shows me around.

RENE HUEL: This is where we set up the genetic test so we can test for different DNA markers. These are the reference kits that can be sent out to families. It has everything...

KAKISSIS: The team collected data from 100,000 families of those missing in the western Balkans.

Again, Kathryne Bomberger.

BOMBERGER: And this required not only collecting that data in country. But also, following the conflict, families moved to other countries. So we had to find people now residing in North America and Europe, Australia.

KAKISSIS: Bomberger acknowledges that locating the relatives of missing migrants who come from more than 65 countries from Africa to Asia is much more daunting.

For now, the International Commission on Missing Persons is just beginning to coordinate with Malta and three other Mediterranean countries to identify the dead, including the boy in Addolorata Cemetery known for now as number 132.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Malta.

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