Mediterranean States Can Access Forensic Capacity And Expertise to Locate and Identify Missing Migrants

Photo credit: Hellenic Coast Guard/Reuters

The Hague, 5 July 2023: Following the sinking of a fishing boat packed with migrants off the Greek coast on 14 June, the authorities in Greece and other countries have an obligation under international and domestic law to take effective steps to locate and identify victims and in due course repatriate their remains. More than 600 people may have drowned in the sinking of the Adriana. As many as one hundred children are among the missing.

Since 2018, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) has been working with the governments of Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Malta to develop a Joint Process to account for missing migrants. Following the 14 June shipwreck, ICMP immediately offered to have blood-collection kits shipped to Athens with a view to taking reference samples from relatives of those who had gone missing. These samples can be compared with DNA taken from unidentified human remains, which will facilitate the long-term effort to identify victims.

Individual countries, including developed countries, do not have the DNA capacity to accommodate sudden rises in demand for identifications, such as those created by natural disasters or by irregular migration. They have to pool their technical resources and utilize the standing capacity for DNA identification that is available at any given time. One of the long-term objectives of the Joint Process has been to facilitate this type of transnational cooperation.

Additionally, a fundamental challenge of irregular migration is its multinational character – those who perished on 14 June are reported to have included nationals from Egypt, Pakistan, Syria and Palestine, as well as other countries. Transit countries and destination countries must establish effective mechanisms to liaise with countries of origin in the matter of identification and repatriation – which is an aspect of migration management that has not until now received adequate attention.

The countries participating in the Joint Process first met in 2018, in Rome. After conducting a comprehensive assessment, ICMP presented a set of Proposals for Action at the second meeting, in June 2019 at ICMP Headquarters in The Hague. In 2020 and 2021, focal points were appointed in the Joint Process countries, representing a significant step forward in operational cooperation. A statement issued after the third meeting, in Athens in November 2021, highlighted “the need for a secure way of data collection and exchange that can improve efforts to find missing migrants and reunite families, and initiated proposals in that regard.”

A great deal of work still needs to be done, but a basic structure is now in place that will allow countries in the Mediterranean to pool their expertise and resources and coordinate their efforts to account for missing migrants more effectively.

Governments in the Mediterranean now have access to a network of forensic capacity and expertise that makes it possible to investigate these disappearances and in due course bring closure to hundreds of bereaved families.