Dignity for dead victims of the migrant crisis

Just last week a boat sank in the Mediterranean. Ninety people died. This year a total of 546 people are recorded to have died on their migrant journeys across continents, and it’s only February.

The total figure over the past three years is 8,650 dead.

But who are they? Where have they come from? Tragically the answer, too often, is “we don’t know”.

Dignity for dead victims of the migrant crisis
Dignity for dead victims of the migrant crisis

In the basement of a provincial hospital near the Greek border with Turkey, one man is trying against the odds to reunite the dead with their families. But first he has to work out who they are.

A 'believe' wristband; a phone

Dr Pavlos Pavlidis is a forensic pathologist. He greets me from behind his desk in the Forensics Department of Alexandroupoli General Hospital. He wastes no time with introductions.

“This is my work… take a look,” he says, angling his computer screen towards me.

The image is horrific. It shows the body of a man, probably in his twenties. His torso is pale, his face is black, almost mummified; his eyes are gone, just the sockets remain.

“The birds took them,” the doctor says, his tone matter-of-fact.

Another image shows the man’s legs. He is wearing four pairs of trousers. The doctor explains that he must have hoped the layers would keep him warm as he crossed the marshy countryside on the Greek/Turkish border.

The man was found in a hut on the Greek banks of the Evros – a river which forms the border with Turkey.

He had made it across the river but died alone of hypothermia as he rested in a hut. The blackened skin all over his face is frostbite.

A powerpack; notepaper

Dr Pavlidis pulls up another photo: another body, another nameless victim, discovered in the Evros on 8 January.

Around the victim’s neck is a heart-shaped necklace with the words “heart to you” engraved on it – probably a gift from a loved one.

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For Dr Pavlidis it is a tiny clue which may provide him with the answers to his quest – who is this man and how can his family be told of his fate?

“Instead of just determining the cause of death I believe that it is my duty to hand over these dead people to their relatives,” the doctor explains.

“The person who has died deserves our respect but we also must provide answers to the parents who are desperately trying to find answers as to where their child is,” he says.

Watch; papers

Next door in the autopsy room, the doctor produces a shoebox. He places it on the stainless steel table where the bodies are examined and removes the lid. It’s full of small plastic bags.

Each contains the belongings of a victim: watches, rings, bracelets, glasses, mobile phones, SIM cards.

There’s a hand-written label stuck on each too with the date the body was found and a unique number.

Each bag represents a family who doesn’t yet know; relatives who are still wondering.

“This is the heart of your investigation?” I ask the doctor.

“Yes, exactly. From here we start,” he says.

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People seeking asylum enter the European Union at points right across its southern and eastern frontiers, from Spain to Bulgaria.

Some are fleeing war, some famine, some poverty, some a combination of all.

The land border between Greece and Turkey, along the course of the Evros, has been a crossing point for decades.

It is considered easier than some other entry points because it doesn’t involve a sea crossing. But in order to cross undetected, migrants tend to use remote stretches of the river.

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Glasses and prayer beads; a watch and prayer book

They cross in groups using boats, ropes or just by swimming. Last year the EU border agency, Frontex, made 5,500 interceptions on the border, representing an 80% increase on 2016.

We don’t know how many make it successfully, undetected. But those who don’t make it are often found dead days or even weeks later.

Dr Pavlidis takes me into the morgue. He pulls open the draw of one of the fridges.

Inside a green body-bag is the body of another victim.

“We know nothing about this man,” he says. “Nothing – he had no belongings, no clothes. Nothing.”

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Statistically the victim is likely to be either Syrian or Turkish – now the second highest nationality making the journey on this route, fleeing the hardline Erdogan government.

According to Frontex, the top four nationalities using the Evros River crossing are Syrian, Turkish, Pakistani and then Iraqis.

It is the hunters and fishermen who find the bodies first; men like Nikos Xanthopoulos and Tollis Setseris.

“It’s not one, it’s not two, it’s not three it’s not five. There are many dead bodies drifting down the river,” Nikos tells me. “We are used to seeing dead bodies drifting down the river.”

“Throughout the night you will see these small plastic dinghies crammed with four or five people coming across. They try to make the crossing with a rope that they have thrown across the river. At some point that thin piece of rope snaps and then you see the river’s current taking these people and carrying them away,” Nikos adds.

A bracelet with a heart pendant, and medication

Dr Pavlidis can only keep bodies in his hospital for a few months. The morgue is already full prompting the Red Cross to donate another refrigerator which sits in the hospital car park.

Once he has catalogued every clue from each body, including belongings and DNA, they are sent for burial.

If the belongings suggest the victim is a Muslim, they are buried in a field next to a Muslim village not far from the hospital.

The village elder, the mufti, has a plan of the location of each grave which corresponds to Dr Pavlidis’s unique ID numbers.

If a relative ever comes forward, the body can be exhumed and returned to them.


On the doctor’s desk is a package from the UK. It contains the DNA of a young female refugee who made it to Britain. She thinks her mother may have died trying to swim the Evros.

The Red Cross, which is trying to put together a global database of missing migrants,put her in touch with the Greek authorities and Dr Pavlidis.

In the coming days he will be able to give the young refugee in the UK the answers she needs.

“I believe it’s very important for me to give the bodies to the relatives. It’s respect. It’s respect for the dead people. It’s respect for the relatives.”

I ask the doctor how it effects him personally.

“I am a professional and I am personally not affected by this situation because I am trying to do my job as professionally as possible. But that does not mean that I am not human. And that’s why I am trying to do something more for these people.”

For more information visit the Missing Migrants project at the Red Cross and International Organisation for Migration.

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