The last rights project
The UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, has estimated that 1,015,078 people made irregular journeys to Europe by sea in 2015, of whom 856,723 went to Greece, 153,842 to Italy, and 3625 more died or went missing while attempting that sea journey.
While about 4000 are known to have died in the first eight months of 2016, many more are missing. Most were women and children.
Unhappily, the deaths will continue to occur.
And the names of most of the dead and missing are not known; their families have not been traced, and where bodies have been found, they are often buried in unmarked graves.
Families do not know if a missing relative – a parent, spouse, brother, sister or child – is alive or dead.
Procedures for how the dead should be recorded, their mortal remains identified, and families traced in situations of conflict are set out in international humanitarian law.
Drawing on international human rights law, principles have been developed to protect the rights of the missing and their families in other situations of death and loss: enforced disappearance, internal displacement, and humanitarian disaster.
But attention has yet to be given to the legal duties of states to identify the dead, and to protect the rights of families in the context of refugee flight and irregular migration.
It is important to clarify the steps states should take to investigate disappearances and deaths, identify those who die, provide a decent burial to the dead – whether or not they have been identified – and trace their families, including their children.
It is also important to consider how and by whom data taken from bodies, and from families whose relatives are missing, should be held, and under what safeguards.
This will involve a review of international law to ascertain how it should apply, to identify gaps in its provisions and propose measures to close those gaps, in the specific circumstances of refugee and migrant death and loss.
The Last Rights project, set up a year ago in response to the rising death toll in the Mediterranean and the lack of rights for the migrant dead and bereaved, is calling for a new framework of respect for the rights of missing and dead refugees, the bereaved and family members.
For, as the project’s co-convenors Catriona Jarvis and Syd Bolton point out, the authorities have presided over abject breaches of human rights for too long – and without rapid improvements in living conditions and in asylum and migration policies, more deaths are inevitable.
To find out more about this project click here.