Wednesday, June 7, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Forlorn and unnamed, refugee graves in Italy evoke tragedy of deadly sea crossings

Thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in Asia and Africa have died crossing the Mediterranean Sea. When their bodies are brought to shore, their remains often cannot be identified. A Sicilian imam wants Italy to build a special cemetery for these “martyrs of the sea.”

CATANIA, Sicily (CN) — In five rows in a pauper's field at the back of the overcrowded and splendidly curated city cemetery of Catania, Italy, the remains of dozens of migrants drowned at sea are interred in the saddest of graves.

There are no flowers here and hardly any names. The lives buried in this field eerily seem more alive than dead, as though their journeys across the Mediterranean Sea are unfinished.

“The bodies that are recovered are usually unknown. Their provenance is unknown,” said Kheit Abdelhafid, an imam in Catania and the president of the Islamic Community of Sicily, in a telephone interview.

Abdelhafid has traveled to cemeteries across Sicily to offer prayers for those who've perished in the Mediterranean. With the religious beliefs of the deceased most often not known, he said Muslim, Roman Catholic and Protestant representatives can be at the graves to offer a common prayer. When he knows a deceased migrant was Muslim, he says an Islamic prayer.

He's also pushing for the construction of a cemetery dedicated to drowned refugees, but so far Sicilian and the Italian governments have balked at the idea.

“We wanted to call the cemetery 'the Martyrs of the Sea,'” he said.

He said such a cemetery could also become a focal point for efforts to identify the dead and a starting place for families seeking to find the remains of loved ones.

In Catania, the graves are marked by simple metal poles that lean to-and-fro. Atop the poles are metal plates inscribed with what little is known about the deceased.

Only six out of about 75 grave plots have names: Touray Keeba, Mustafa Jumaa, Sid Camara, Romini Hossain, Malik Abdel, Muyasar Bashtawi.

The plates include the date when a body was found in the sea. On a few, the name of the ship that plucked them from the Mediterranean Sea is written. A few indicate a dead migrant's gender. Crucially, the remains are given numbers in the slim hope that they will be found by loved ones one day.

“It is sad, so sad,” Abdelhafid said. “Each one of these people has a story behind them.”

In the past decade, hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing poverty and war in Africa and Asia have sought passage into the European Union on unseaworthy and overloaded inflatable rafts, dinghies and boats. Typically, the vessels push off from Libya and Tunisia with the occupants hoping to get picked up at sea or to reach Lampedusa, a Sicilian island close to North Africa, or the shores of Sicily.

But this journey is also the deadliest migration route in the world.

“This is due both to the length of the overseas journey, which can take days, as well as increasingly dangerous smuggling patterns, gaps in search-and-rescue capacity and restrictions on the life-saving work of NGOs,” the International Organization for Migration says on its website.

The United Nations agency says that 24,144 people have died or gone missing during attempts to cross the Mediterranean since 2014. The vast majority of those deaths – 19,520 – took place in the central Mediterranean and the bodies of most of those who've perished have not been recovered, according to the agency's figures. Last year, it said 1,864 people died trying to cross the central Mediterranean.

Burying the dead, then, falls to Italian authorities.

When a body is recovered from the sea, it goes to the local medical examiner’s office. When possible, DNA is collected and efforts are made to find relatives, though that has proven extremely difficult.

For example, immense efforts have been taken to recover and identify the remains of nearly 800 migrants who died after a large fishing vessel sank on April 18, 2015, in one of the worst sea disasters ever involving a vessel carrying migrants.

Inside the hull of the ship more than 500 corpses, 30,000 mingled bones and hundreds of skulls were recovered but only a handful of the bodies have been identified, according to a 2021 report by the Guardian newspaper.

It's up to the local authorities in Italy to decide where to place the bodies pulled from the sea. Courthouse News went in search of a few of these graves and found they are poorly documented.

In Patti, a Sicilian town near Messina, officials, including the town's mayor, were unable to provide help in finding the graves of four migrants buried in the town's cemetery. The migrants drowned off the coast of Libya in 2015 and were brought to Messina before being buried in Patti and another town in Messina called Forza d'Agrò, according to ANSA, an Italian state news agency.

There are examples of migrant graves that aren't neglected.

In Calabria, for example, tombs of migrants buried in Badolato's cemetery are decorated with colorful images.

The tomb of an unidentified African man who died in 2016 is adorned with an image of an overcrowded vessel on the sea and the word “Why?” written above it.

Also in Badolato, the tomb of Akyol Diyar, a Kurdish boy, is brightened by the image of a schoolboy walking toward the sun with a book bag on his back. Above the image are the words: “Bye-bye little Kurdish boy, innocent victim of the absurd wars of this crazy world. Continue on your journey of dreams and freedom!”

Badolato became well known after it initiated a program to revive its old and dying Medieval town in the hills by providing housing and work to Kurdish refugees who'd arrived on a ship that landed on the shores near the town.

Abdelhafid said the world's attention focused on the question of refugee burials after more than 360 African migrants drowned when an overloaded fishing vessel capsized off the coast of Lampedusa on Oct. 3, 2013.

“After that happened, people started to talk about it, newspapers began to write about it and discussion began about guaranteeing these dead a dignified burial,” he said.

Until then, migrants' bodies often were interred on Lampedusa, but with so many dead to bury bodies were taken to other Sicilian cemeteries.

Abdelhafid said doing more to honor and identify dead migrants is important, but first of all their deaths need to be prevented.

“It is essential to guarantee safe voyages to these people,” he said.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Categories:Government, International, Religion

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.