In Sicily, Documenting Mediterranean Deaths Of Migrants

Meet the Italians driven by a sense of history and humanity to identify the refugees and migrants who have died trying to cross the Mediterranean.

Italy, May 16
Italy, May 16
Leanne Tory-Murphy

PALERMO — Giorgia Mirto gestures at the lines of simple metal rods topped with laminated signs in a forgotten corner of a crowded cemetery in the Sicilian port city of Palermo. The signs, stained with rust and mildew, read "sconosciuto" or "ignoto" — they mark the graves of the unidentified victims of migrant shipwrecks.

Mirto's animated presence and bright blue eyes bely the gravity of her mission. As one of the founders of the Mediterranean Missing Project, she has dedicated her life to documenting what she calls border deaths, people who die or go missing while crossing the sea.

The Mediterranean has been the deadliest migratory route in the world in recent years, with more than 8,000 deaths in 2016 and 2017. So far in 2018 there have been more than 600 deaths. The vast majority of the bodies of deceased migrants that are found remain unidentified, and many are never found at all, leaving thousands of families in the dark as to the fate of their loved ones.

Mirto has spent years analyzing news reports, poring through police documents and visiting rows of unnamed graves in towns and cities throughout Italy's south. Her quest is motivated by a sense of obligation and her own history of loss. Her grandfather was kidnapped by the Mafia and never seen again. "We don't know what happened," she says, "no one has been charged and we never got the body in order to bury it."

In order for police departments to invest resources in the identification of bodies there needs to be a criminal prosecution.

When people die in a "mass disaster" — more than five deaths — the standard procedure developed by the Red Cross is to begin Disaster Victim Identification, a process driven by forensic police and medical specialists. Despite the dozens of shipwrecks on the Central Mediterranean route since 1990, only three cases have been treated as mass disasters by Italy's interior ministry. This means that whether victims are identified or not is entirely at the discretion of local authorities.

When there is a plane crash, victims are identified and families informed. Mirto compares what has happened in the Mediterranean to multiple plane crashes but says the resources and will to identify the victims has most often been lacking.

Part of the problem is that in order for police departments to invest resources in the identification of bodies there needs to be a criminal prosecution. The only substantial source of prosecutions has been misplaced ones against migrants pressed to become boat drivers — an unfortunate prerequisite.

The cost of not knowing for bereaved families goes beyond the emotional. "A wife should know that she is now a widow," says Mirto. "She can start to inherit her husband's things, she can remarry, her children may be entitled to state benefits."

Following a shipwreck off the Libyan coast on August 24, 2014, it fell to police inspector Angelo Milazzo, in Siracusa, Sicily, to identify the victims. Having had previous experience with another shipwreck some years before, as well as having worked on investigations of online crime such as pedophilia and child pornography, he was able to refine a social media-based approach to migrant victim identification, and managed to identify 22 of the 24 deceased within two weeks.

Milazzo started with survivor testimony, working with an interpreter to get as much information as possible about the victims. He and the interpreter simultaneously searched Facebook and Arabic news sites (the passengers were Syrian) for news on the shipwrecks and for family members searching for their loved ones. Sometimes he would receive direct phone calls, saying for example, ""I am this person's mother, I haven't heard from him in three, four or five days. His ship sank. I want to know whether he is alive or dead,"" Milazzo recounts to Mirto. "What am I supposed to do?" he says. "I shouldn't tell them?"

It is difficult to follow traditional burial practices because the bodies often arrive in a high state of decomposition due to the sea water.

Milazzo's experience identifying the victims of the August 2014 shipwreck is an exception. Between 1990 and 2013 for example, only one in five of the bodies brought to Sicily following sinkings were identified. This is due to the enormous variability in procedures in the various prefectures and the ways that corpses are managed and transported, often becoming difficult to trace.

The police investigation is only the first step. The police will notify the public prosecutors' office and in some cases an investigation is launched into the circumstances of the death. Sometimes a coroner will examine the bodies, take DNA samples and write up a report, but often this procedure is skipped and the health authority simply issues a death certificate.

Then the search for a burial site begins. Simply put, Italian cemeteries are very full. Plots tend to be owned or leased by families, and remains are regularly exhumed and stored above ground in order to make room. An unclaimed body will be transported to wherever there is space. The practices may range anywhere from individual families offering space to deceased migrants in their family plot to large mass graves.

Abdelhafid Kheit is the president of the Islamic Community of Sicily and has been an imam in the eastern city of Catania for over 20 years. He says that it is difficult to follow traditional burial practices because the bodies often arrive in a high state of decomposition due to the sea water. The first time he was asked to oversee the process, he says, he was taken aback by the state of the corpses. "It remains one of the most difficult memories of my life," he says.

Kheit describes the burial services he performs in Catania as "a moment of invocation, of memory… also a moment of pain, and of sharing that pain with everyone." Despite the difficulty of his task he says that, "the beautiful thing is not to remain indifferent to others' suffering. It is human work, and one discovers himself through this work." He recalls one funeral in particular when 17 cadavers were brought to Catania and they were able to find a place for them through collaboration with the mayor and a local university. The graves were adorned with verses from the poem "Migrations' by Nigerian Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka.

"Loose sands dog my steps. Loose sands Of deserts, of chiseled seabed shrouds — For some went that way before the answer Could be given – will there be sun? Or rain? We've come to the bay of dreams."

Mirto is concerned that the lack of attention given to counting, tracing and identifying migrant deaths at sea means that "this part of our history is being denied." She hopes that the families of victims, whom she calls "the most invisible part of this whole tragedy," will find truth, justice and eventually, peace.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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