Documenting a tragedy

The University has launched major research projects which count the human cost of the refugee crisis

In a local cemetery on the Greek island of Lesbos, rows of hastily-dug graves contain human remains, barely covered with earth and marked only with broken stones on which is written a nationality, date of death and a number.

The graves are the final resting places of nameless men, women and children who died in the seas around Lesbos as they fled war and poverty in search of safer shores and a better life.

Sadly, many may never be identified. This is a tragic, unresolved loss, says Dr Simon Robins, leader of a new research project which aims to improve official efforts to identify those who don’t survive the perilous sea crossings.

Waiting for news

“Without information about the fate of their loved ones, many mothers and wives, sons and daughters live between hope and despair, always waiting for news, but never receiving it,” says Dr Robins, a Research Fellow in our Centre for Applied Human Rights.

The Missing Migrants project aims to help EU states develop a more systematic approach to improving identification while highlighting the importance of informing families about the fate of their relatives. It draws on Dr Robin’s research expertise into the issue of missing people in post-conflict situations in countries such as Nepal and Timor-Leste.

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“Refugees Are Welcome here” march in York, September 2015

The one-year project will include interviews with Syrian families who are left struggling with the psychological and emotional impact of loss and often with no information about the fate of their family members. When they do receive news that loved ones have died, red tape often prevents them learning more.

“In the very limited number of cases where families are informed of a death, they haven’t been able to attend the burial because they were told too late, or they are denied access to the country because they don’t have the necessary documentation,” says Dr Robins.

Some relatives have been deported or held in custody when they tried to visit Lesbos to identify loved ones.

Key evidence

“Key evidence such as SIM cards or photographs, details of distinguishing marks or clothing could be collected – but the problem is that at the moment, there are no procedures in place to collect or share this information,” says Dr Robins.

“The continuing failure to collect and record these details means more unidentified bodies in unmarked graves and another missed opportunity to ease the suffering of the families left behind.”

Another York researcher, Dr Simon Parker from the Department of Politics, is leading a one-year study examining the human cost of the Mediterranean emergency. His research aims to understand what drives people to tackle the dangerous journey to EU countries and what factors influence their destination choice.

Using marine satellite technology, the research team will identify and track rescued boats. They will interview migrants as they arrive in Italy, one of the busiest and most dangerous migrant sea routes. They will also interview officials and local support organisations across Sicily to find out how they are dealing with the large numbers of distressed people landing on their shores.

Migrants sit in a boat during a rescue operation by Italian navy off the coast of the south of the Italian island of Sicily in this November 28, 2013 picture provided by the Italian Marina Militare. About 350 migrants, who were travelling in four separate boats were rescued on Thursday in the operation called Mare Nostrum, Italian navy said. Picture taken November 28. REUTERS/Marina Militare/Handout via Reuters (ITALY - Tags: SOCIETY IMMIGRATION MARITIME TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - RTX15XEX
Migrants sit in a boat during a rescue operation by Italian navy off the coast of the south of the Italian island of Sicily  (Image credit: Reuters)

Documentary film

Many of the migrants’ stories will feature in a film, produced as part of the research project with the aim of creating lasting documentary evidence of the current crisis.

“Our study aims to understand some of the broader political and economic forces that are shaping the unprecedented levels of migration,” says Dr Parker. “We aim to provide objective academic analysis that will help to inform decisions about managing the response to the situation.

“Also, importantly, we aim to give the people caught up in this crisis a voice, which, through the medium of film, will act as a witness to one of Europe’s most challenging humanitarian emergencies.”

The University has announced funding of £500,000 over three years to help refugees escaping the worsening humanitarian crisis. The package includes scholarships for refugee students and offering scholar rescue status to refugee academics.