Identification of the dead is something that is often taken for granted, if offered any thought at all, in our modern world. However, it is important to note that this process of identification can present unique challenges, particularly for people who exist in “liminal spaces.” One example of such a space is one defined by movement- more specifically, the precarious mode of living embodied by migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees who often exist outside of traditional frameworks of the state and migration processes. Refugee crises are a pressing issue in the public consciousness today, with one example of such a crisis being that of the Mediterranean. While there are obviously a number of questions about how local and global communities can navigate relationships with living migrants, we argue that more consideration should be offered to those who do not complete their journeys. According to a recent report by the International Organization for Migration, there were approximately 3,072 deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean between January and September of 2014.[1] Of these, a large majority remain unidentified. There is a myriad of implications relating to the death of migrants and the challenges that arise when attempting to identify their bodies, which we will explore through multiple angles as a means of presenting the most holistic picture of this issue possible.

To begin, it is important to consider the contexts that caused many of the migrants of the Mediterranean to leave their home countries in the first place. Conflicts in countries such as Iraq, Syria, and several parts of North Africa have driven asylum seekers into the Mediterranean in attempts to reach Europe. One such conflict is the Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011 after the Arab Spring garnered support for efforts in the movement towards “democracy.” In response, thousands of demonstrators, civilians, and military defectors who formed the Free Syrian Army were killed under the command of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. It is worth noting that international involvement has played a huge role in how the Civil War has progressed in the last decade. Similarly, a season of violence and extreme conflict seemed to be ushered into Iraq by international actors in 2003, after the US and Britain waged war on the region in an attempt to eliminate the reign of Saddam Hussein.[2] Further conflict in the region arose when the different sects of Islam (being Sunni and Shia) waged war against both each other and the Islamic State (IS) as each attempted to claim political and religious control. As this conflict continued, the reach of the IS expanded out of Iraq and into neighboring countries, such as Syria and Libya.  Struggles for power are also present in areas of conflict in North Africa, as is exemplified by Tunisia’s political upheaval resulting from chronic “economic inequality and the social and economic marginalization”.[3] Protests are occurring throughout the country to call out the corruption in the Tunisian government, as officials are not held accountable for the injustices they cause. Further, the government’s inaction on this front has led to violent revolts and protests, ultimately causing many deaths and injuries.

As a whole, these conflicts have created a crisis in the Mediterranean, driving people to leave areas in which they no longer feel safe to attempt to seek asylum in other countries. For many of these people, seeking asylum means crossing the Mediterranean Sea, which can extremely dangerous or even fatal. Since 2000, the International Organization for Migration estimates that 40,000 refugees have died attempting to seek asylum.[4] The high mortality rate of refugees crossing these waters has made the Mediterranean into a mass grave of sorts, where bodies are left in a liminal space between identification and social death.

Migrant body floating in Mediterranean Sea

We call this a liminal space because many of the families of these migrants never find closure in learning about what happened to their family members after they left their home countries. This lack of closure dramatically affects the family’s grieving processes and rituals, either interrupting them or in some cases making them impossible to complete. In predominately Islamic countries, such as Syria, Iraq, and Tunisia, after a person dies, their body is cleaned and wrapped in a white cloth. Then, a family member pays off any debts the deceased had in life so his soul can be at peace. At the funeral, the men in the family carry the coffin to the grave. There are groups, called adadas, that sing mourning songs.[5] Friends and members of the community visit the family, like they do in the US. Women usually wear black clothes for months, sometimes a year or more, and men grow out their beards to show mourning. The burial is performed in 24 hours or less because Muslims believe that the soul lives in the body for 40 days.[6] The lost and unidentified bodies make is impossible to perform these funeral traditions, and in turn, complete the grieving process in accordance with their cultural traditions.

This lack of identification affects both the dead and the living, as there are a number of moral and ethical implications relating to the identification of migrant bodies, as well as the failure to do so. As previously discussed, many migrants find themselves in liminal spaces as a result of violence, conflict, or other forms of unrest. Therefore, we can look to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 for some of the reasoning behind why the identification of migrant bodies is so important, given that these guidelines are meant to be applied during times of conflict. According to the Geneva Conventions, society as a whole has ethical and humanitarian obligations to identify the dead, which should be “respected and fulfilled without discrimination” as a means of honoring the now universally recognized right of human beings to not lose their identity after death.[7] However, the Conventions are less explicit about who this responsibility falls to, which becomes perhaps even more convoluted by both the liminal existence of these bodies and the fact that personal identity is becoming increasingly less tied to countries and borders in the face of globalization and its production of a “liquid world.”[8] Further, in considering some of the motivations behind the identification of the bodies of migrants, one must grapple with ethical questions relating to what we owe to the dead and what we owe to the living. Jenny Edkins points to the different impacts of “names without bodies” versus “bodies without names,” which is closely related to our discussion on the dead versus the living and how identification of bodies affects each.[9] For the first, one must consider the importance of identity and whether or not it matters after death. While there is no definitive answer to this question, we contest that identity after death is of grave importance for a number of reasons. Without considerations for personal identity, we fail to acknowledge people as unique human beings rather than just numbers or statistics, thus violating ethical standards relating to human rights. This idea is supported by Mordini and Ottolini, who state that “one can be entitled with rights only if he has an identity. No political, civil and social right can be enforced on anonymous crowds.”[8] In this sense, personhood does not end with death- a concept that is made even more obvious by the myriad of rituals and practices surrounding concepts of “social death” and grieving.

Volunteer holds the body of an infant pulled out of the water

In a similar vein, it is important to think about the impacts of identifying the bodies of migrants can have for their families and others close to them, who also exist in a sort of liminal space in the sense that they live with uncertainty regarding the fate of their loved one. This state of being is further described by Boss, who states that by not knowing what had happened to those they lost, they were forced to experience “the ambiguity of absence and presence.”[10] There are several implications of this, such as the fact that researchers have cited this emotional distress as an ethical concern in methodologies that becomes a potential barrier to identification and/or communication with living migrants, as it was deemed unethical to interview individuals in such a state.[11] This relates to Borneman’s argument that, in these situations, the dead govern the living, rather than the other way around, and that “the migrant body appears to have agency; such bodies can both nourish and haunt the living… Beyond the affective impacts of the dead body, i.e. those that touch people emotionally, attachment to the dead and in particular to certain bodies – particularly where they are absent – gives them power over the living.”[12] This suspended state can fluctuate between grief and hope, making it difficult if not impossible for those who knew these deceased migrants during life to mourn their loss appropriately. The inability to mourn and go through processes of incorporation through the dead affects both the bereaved and the dead in the sense that mourning is “an ethical responsibility of those close to the dead, and one denied to the relatives of those missing” when bodies remain unidentified.[11]

One of the most famous images surrounding the crisis in the Mediterranean, showing the body of a shipwrecked Syrian toddler

In continuing our discussion on how the identification or lack thereof of migrant bodies affects the living, we turn to some of the challenges faced by those actively trying to identify said bodies. This process begins, not surprisingly, by finding bodies to identify. In the context of the Mediterranean, bodies are usually found in one of two ways- they either wash up on beaches or are pulled out of the ocean. As a result of colder environments, fewer “necrophageous insects,” and high salt concentration of the water, bodies that are under water for some time tend to decompose more slowly than bodies on land. However, there are still some challenges presented in the search for migrant bodies lost at sea. Bodies tend to float in water as a result of being less dense, though sometimes random variations in density (for example, brought on by swallowing water) can lead to the body sinking. Once it starts sinking, the body will likely continue to do so as pressure on the body further decompresses internal gases, and unless pinned down by debris, it will resurface after further decomposition. This cyclical nature of movement makes it such that those working with the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean have to be “at the right place at the right time” in order to retrieve bodies of migrants. As a result, many bodies are never recovered. The chance of this happening becomes even more likely if bodies are found by scavengers, because while there are less insects in these environments, various types of sharks and crabs, along with other forms of marine life, will feed on the deceased.[13]

Even if a body is able to be recovered, the hard work of attempting to identify the body has only just begun. This is a monumental task that requires collaboration between governments and other institutions, along with a host of forensic data. There are two vital players in the identification of bodies: the Interpol’s Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) guidelines and the (AM/PM) database, which outline the processes through which identification may be possible. More specifically, the DVI is a set of guide lines that helps standardize a cheap and effective way to collect uncontaminated forensic data.[14] This process starts with the collection postmortem data, including pictures of the corpse, DNA samples, and an odonatological examination. Photographs taken of the body in this stage focus on defining features such as “tattoos, scars, piercings and moles,” and any samples taken are in accordance with DVI guidelines. The DVI standardizes every part of the postmortem data collection process, from the tools and workstations used to the angles of cuts needed to probe different areas of the body. This standardization allows for more accurate data as it is designed to reduce error in data collection. Additionally, these guidelines include a multi-step approach so that if one method of identification fails, there are other to fall back on. For example, even when there is extensive decomposition acted on the body, making photographs not particularly useful tools, it is possible to get a viable DNA sample by drilling into bone. In addition to the collection of DNA samples, the corpse’s teeth are examined and documented. This is particularly important because examination of teeth makes it possible to estimate where the person might have lived and their age range, even if the body has decomposed beyond recognition.[15] Another approach taken in the identification of migrant bodies in the Mediterranean is the collection of antemortem data. This process includes the collection of a missing person’s antemortem report, where pictures and DNA samples are collected in an interview. The purpose of this database is to collect as much data as possible so that forensic scientists can attempt to match recovered bodies to descriptions given during these interviews.[16]

Despite all of these methods, a number of hurdles still stand in the way of identifying recovered bodies. The precariousness that defines the movement of migrants makes it difficult for families to even know if their relatives are missing, and they often are only made aware of this fact through word-of-mouth sources suggesting that their relative may have been at a shipwreck or traveling with a certain group of people, and even then there is no way to verify these claims. Additionally, it is not uncommon for missing persons reports for refugees to be filed months or even years after they have fled their home countries. This temporal distance can add complexity to the process of identification, making it difficult if not impossible to find pictures, family and other information that could help identify the body. The effects of this are compounded by the fact that sometimes those filing reports are not directly related to the missing migrant, as is highlighted in an article by Lara Olivier et al., which states that 20 out of 53 reports were made by “non-genetically related relatives” such as “spouses, friends or second degree relatives.” [17] This presents challenges in the sense that these individuals may be less equipped to provide the antemortem data necessary for identification to be possible.

The trauma of death during migration is complex and multifaceted, and its effects are certainly not limited to one group of actors. Rather, this type of death affects not only the deceased, but their loved ones and those involved in the process of trying to identify them. Those invested in the identification of bodies are driven to do so by similar yet distinct motivations, with families having cultural and ethical responsibilities to grieve appropriately, and forensic scientists having ethical codes and guidelines to uphold. These entanglements make it especially difficult to navigate the identification of bodies and to reconcile with those that are left unidentified. Additionally, this presents an interesting dichotomy between these two groups of “the living”, one of which interacts with a memory and no body, while the other interacts with a body with no memory or history. For the dead, this raises questions relating to which of these aspects of self are the most closely related to one’s personhood, or if the two must be reunited through body identification in order for identity to be truly claimed after death. In this sense, we argue that the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean is defined largely by liminality- of movement, for the deceased, and for those left behind.


[1] Brian, Tara, and Frank Laczko. Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost during Migration. Geneva: International Organization for Migration, 2014.


[2] Al Jazeera. “Syria’s Civil War Explained from the Beginning.” News | Al Jazeera. April 14, 2018. Accessed April 07, 2019.


[3] Aboueldahab, Noha. “Unrest in Tunisia: Another Turning Point in a Legacy of Economic Injustice.” Brookings. January 29, 2018. Accessed April 07, 2019.


[4] Khiabany, Gholam. “Refugee Crisis, Imperialism and Pitiless Wars on the Poor.” Media, Culture & Society 38, no. 5 (July 2016): 755–62. doi:10.1177/0163443716655093.


[5] “Tunisian Funeral Customs | The Definitive Funeral Planning and Information Resource.” 2019. Accessed April 07, 2019.


[6] Berens, K. “Syrian Funeral Practices | The Definitive Funeral Planning and Information Resource.” 2019. Accessed April 07, 2019.


[7] Cattaneo, C., M. Tidball Binz, L. Penados, J. Prieto, O. Finegan, and M. Grandi. “The Forgotten Tragedy of Unidentified Dead in the Mediterranean.” Forensic Science International 250 (2015). Accessed March 28, 2019. doi:10.1016/j.forsciint.2015.02.007.


[8] Mordini, Emilio, and Corinna Ottolini. “Body Identification, Biometrics and Medicine: Ethical and Social Considerations.” Ann Ist Super Sanità 43, no. 1 (2007): 51-60. Accessed March 29, 2019. doi:10.4018/9781599047805.ch011.



[9] Edkins, Jenny. “Missing Migrants and the Politics of Naming: Names Without Bodies, Bodies Without Names.” Social Research 83, no. 2 (2016): 359-89. Accessed March 28, 2019. ProQuest.


[10] Boss, P. “Insights: Ambiguous Loss: Living with Frozen Grief.” The Harvard Mental Health Letter 16, no. 5 (1999): 4-6. Accessed March 30, 2019.


[11] Kovras, Iosif, and Simon Robins. “Death as the Border: Managing Missing Migrants and Unidentified Bodies at the EUs Mediterranean Frontier.” Political Geography 55 (November 2016): 40-49. Accessed March 28, 2019. doi:10.1016/j.polgeo.2016.05.003.



[12] Borneman, John. “Abandonment and Victory in Relations with Dead Bodies.” Edited by Finn Stepputat. In Governing the Dead: Sovereignty and the Politics of Dead Bodies, 260-74. Manchester University Press, 2016.


[13] Ellingham, S. T. D., Perich, P., & Tidball-Binz, M. (2017). The fate of human remains in a maritime context and feasibility for forensic humanitarian action to assist in their recovery and identification. Forensic Science International, 279, 229–234.


[14] Boer, H. H. De, Maat, G. J. R., Kadarmo, D. A., Widodo, P. T., Kloosterman, A. D., & Kal, A. J. (2018). DNA identification of human remains in Disaster Victim Identification ( DVI ): An efficient sampling method for muscle, bone, bone marrow and teeth, 289, 253–259.


[15] Nuzzolese, E. (2018). Dental autopsy for the identification of missing persons. Journal of Forensic Dental Sciences, 10(1), 50–54.


[16] Hofmeister, U., Martin, S. S., Villalobos, C., Padilla, J., & Finegan, O. (2017). The ICRC AM/PM Database: Challenges in forensic data management in the humanitarian sphere. Forensic Science International, 279, 1–7.


[17] Olivieri, L., Mazzarelli, D., Bertoglio, B., De Angelis, D., Previderè, C., Grignani, P., … Cattaneo, C. (2018). Challenges in the identification of dead migrants in the Mediterranean: The case study of the Lampedusa shipwreck of October 3rd 2013. Forensic Science International, 285, 121–128.


Keara McLean, Catherine Orlowski, Michael White