A boat graveyard sits beneath a cloudy sky

Counting the invisible victims of Spain’s EU borders

Read this article in Spanish in El Diario.

In January 2020, Alhassane Bangoura was buried in an unmarked grave in the Muslim area of Teguise municipal cemetery in Lanzarote as city officials and members of the local Muslim community watched on. He had been born only a couple of weeks earlier onboard a cramped patera migrant boat on which his mother, who is from Guinea, and 42 others were trying to reach the Spanish Canary Islands. Their boat was adrift on the Atlantic ocean after its motor had failed two days earlier, and Alhassane’s mother had gone into labour at sea. Her child only lived for a few hours before dying just off the coast of Lanzarote.

Alhassane’s case shocked the island and made national news. Yet as mourners paid their respects, his mother was 200 kilometres away in a migrant reception centre on the neighbouring island of Gran Canaria, having been unable to get permission from authorities to remain on Lanzarote for the funeral.

“She’d been allowed to see the body of her son one more time before being transferred, and I accompanied her to the funeral home,” says Mamadou Sy, a representative of the local Muslim community. “It was very emotional as she was leaving. All we could do was promise her that her son would not be alone; that like any Muslim, he’d be brought to the Mosque where his body would be washed by other mothers; that we would pray for him and that afterwards we’d send her a video of the burial.” 

Nearly four years later, Alhassane’s final resting place remains without a formal headstone. It lies next to more than three dozen graves of unidentified migrants – whose names are completely unknown but who, like Alhassane, are also victims of Europe’s brutal border regime.

The grave of baby Alhassane Bang, Teguise cemetery, Lanzarote. Photo: Gerson Díaz

Border Graves

“Victims of the straight [of Gibraltar]” handwritten on a tomb in Barbate Cemetery, Cádiz. Photo: Leah Pattem

Such a scene is no anomaly along Spain’s vast coastline. Border graves like these can be found in cemeteries stretching from Alicante on the country’s eastern Mediterranean coast to Cádiz on the Atlantic seaboard and south to the Canaries. Some have names but, more often than not, the inscription reads some variation of “unidentified migrant,” “unknown Moroccan,” or “victim of the Strait [of Gibraltar],” or there is simply a hand-painted cross. 

In Barbate cemetery in Cádiz, where the deceased are sealed into niches in traditional brick-walled stacks around two metres in height, groundskeeper Germán points out over 30 different migrant graves, the earliest of which date from 2002 and the most recent are from a shipwreck in 2019.

Two tombs marked "Immigrant of Morocco" on the top row of a burial stack in Tarifa cemetery. Photo: Leah Pattem

"No one ever comes to visit, but on days when there are funerals here and flowers are about to be thrown out, I place them on the tombs containing the unknown migrants,” he explains. “In some of the older graves, you have the remains of up to five or six migrants together, each placed in separate sacks within the same niche to save space.”

Two tombs marked "Immigrant of Morocco" on the top row of a burial stack in Tarifa cemetery. Photo: Tina Xu

Along the coast, in Tarifa, Spain’s earliest mass grave of unidentified migrants, containing 11 victims from a 1988 shipwreck, overlooks the northern reaches of the African continent, which can be seen on a clear day. Meanwhile, around 400 kilometres west of the African coast, on the remote Canarian island of El Hierro, seven unidentified migrants have been buried in the last two months, along with the remains of 30-year old Mamadou Marea. “Locals joined us to accompany the remains of each of these people to their last resting place,” explains Amado Carballo, a councillor on El Hierro. “What upset all of us was not being able to put a name on the tombstone and simply having to leave the person identified by a police code.”

Such concern was less evident in Arrecife, Lanzarote where two unidentified graves from February this year have been left sealed with a covering that still bears a corporate logo.

There is no comprehensive data on how many identified and unidentified migrant graves exist in Spain, and the country’s Interior Ministry has never released figures for the total number of bodies recovered across the various maritime migration routes. But in exclusive data from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Unbias The News can reveal that the bodies of an estimated 530 people who died at Spain’s borders were recovered between 2014 and 2021 – of which 292 remain unidentified. 

In the six month Europe-wide Border Graves Investigation, undertaken in conjunction with Unbias the News, The Guardian and Süddeutsche Zeitung, 109 unidentified migrant graves from 2014-21 were confirmed in Spain across 18 locations. According to a study by the University of Amsterdam, a further 434 unidentified graves stem from 2000-2013 in at least 65 cemeteries. 

These graves are symbols of a much wider humanitarian tragedy. The ICRC estimates that just 6.89% of those who go missing on Europe’s borders are found, while the Spanish NGO Walking Borders gives an even lower figure for the West African Atlantic route to the Canaries, estimating that only 4.2 percent of the bodies of those who die are ever recovered. 

An unmarked tomb in the cemetery of Arrecife, Lanzarote with the corporate branding of the sheathing board company still exposed. Photo: Gerson Díaz

Guaranteeing “last rights”

The unvisited and anonymous graves are also a reflection of the fact that the rights to both identification and a dignified burial for those who have died on migration routes have been consistently neglected by national authorities in Spain. As in other European countries, successive Spanish governments have failed to develop legal mechanisms and state protocols to guarantee these “last rights” of victims, as well as their families’ corresponding “right to know” and to mourn their loved ones. 

The problem is “utterly neglected,” says Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, who insists that EU countries are failing in their obligations under international human rights law to secure families’ “right to truth”. In 2021, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for “prompt and effective identification processes” to inform families about the fate of their loved ones. Yet last year, the Council of Europe called the area a “legislative void.”

“People are always calling the office and asking us how to search for a family member, but you have to be honest and say there’s no clear official channel they can turn to,” explains Juan Carlos Lorenzo, director of the Spanish Refugee Council (CEAR) on the Canary Islands. “You can put them in touch with the Red Cross, but there’s no government-led programme of identification. Nor is there the type of dedicated office needed to coordinate with families and centralise information and data on missing migrants.”

This year alone we are working with over 600 families whose loved ones have disappeared. These families, who are from Morocco, Algeria, Senegal, Guinea and as far afield as Sri Lanka are very much alone and are poorly protected by public administrations. In turn, this means that there are criminal networks and fraudsters seeking to extract money from them.”

Even in the case of a victim’s identification, a recent report from the Human Rights Association of Andalucia lays out the legal and financial barriers families face in terms of repatriating their loved ones. In 2020/21, ICRC figures show that 284 bodies were recovered but that, of the 116 identified, only 53 were repatriated. The Andalusian Association for Human Rights (APDHA) report also notes, with respect to border graves, that “many people end up buried in a manner contrary to their beliefs.” Just half of Spain’s 50 provinces have Muslim cemeteries, not all of which are on the Spanish coast.

For Maleno, these state failures are no accident: “Spain and other European states have a policy of making the victims, as well as the border itself, invisible. You have policies of denying the number of dead and of concealing data, but for the families this means obstacles in terms of accessing information and burial rights, as well as endless bureaucratic hurdles.”

“I dream of Oussama”

Abdallah Tayeb has gained first-hand experience of the dysfunctionality of the Spanish system in his attempts to confirm whether a body recovered almost a year ago is that of his cousin Oussama, a young barber from Algeria who dreamed of joining Tayeb in France. 

The unnamed corpse, which Tayeb strongly believes is his cousin, is currently in a morgue in Almería and looks set to be buried in an unmarked grave in the new year – unless he can achieve a last minute breakthrough.

“The feeling is one of powerlessness,” he admits. “Nothing is transparent.”

Left: Oussama, missing cousin of Abdallah, looks out over the Mediterranean Sea from his hometown in Algeria / Right: Oussama and Abdallah together in Algeria. Photo: Abdallah Tayeb

Abdallah Tayeb was born in Paris to Algerian parents but spends every summer in Algeria with his family. “As Oussama and I were pretty much the same age, we were really close. He was obsessed with the idea of coming to Europe, as two of his brothers were already living in France. But I didn’t know he had actually arranged to leave on a patera last December.”

Oussama was among 23 people (including seven children) who vanished after setting out from Mostaganem, Algeria, on a motor boat on Christmas Day 2022. Soon after the patera went missing, his brother Sofiane travelled from France to Cartagena in southern Spain – the destination the vessel had hoped to reach. With the help of the Red Cross, Sofiane was able to file a missing persons report with the Spanish authorities and submit a DNA sample, which he hopes will result in a match with a body held in a morgue. However, so far, he has been unable to piece together any concrete information regarding his brother’s fate. 

A second trip to Spain in February did lead to a breakthrough, however. After driving down the Mediterranean coast together, Tayeb and his cousin Sofiane managed to speak to a forensic pathologist working in the Almería morgue, who seemed to recognise a photo of Oussama. “She kept saying ‘This face looks familiar’ and also mentioned a necklace – something he’d been wearing when he left.” According to the pathologist, there was a potential match with an unidentified body recovered by the coastguard on 27 December 2022.

Feeling that they were finally close to getting some answers, they were informed at the police headquarters in Almería that, in order to view the body for a visual identification, they would need permission from the police station where the corpse had initially been registered. “This was when the real nightmare began,” Tayeb remembers. Handed a list of five police stations from across the wider region where the corpse could have been registered, they spent the next two days driving from station to station along the Murcian coast.

“The first police station we visited wouldn’t even let us in the door when we told them we were asking about a missing migrant, and after that it was always the same script: this is not the right place; we don’t have a body; you have to go there instead.” When the pair returned to the first station in Huércal de Almeria after being repeatedly told it was the right place to ask, impatient officers refused to engage, citing privacy laws, and even told them to warn other families searching for missing migrants not to keep coming to inquire.

“In the end,” Tayeb explains, “we came to the reality that they will never let us have any information. It was very heartbreaking, especially going back to France. It felt like we were leaving him [there] in the fridge.”

As the subsequent months passed, the frustration and anxiety built for the family. “In May we were told that the DNA sample we gave five months earlier had only just arrived in Madrid and had still not been processed and sent to the database.” No further information has been forthcoming, and Spanish authorities have a policy of only getting in touch with families when there is a positive match and not if the test comes back negative.

Tayeb is contemplating one final visit to Spain to try and retrieve his cousin Oussama, partly to be certain for his own sake that he’s done everything in his power to find him, but he’s worried that the journey could reopen his trauma of ambiguous loss. “The effort of going is not painful, but what is painful is coming back with nothing,” he says. “This lack of information is the worst thing.”

“All the people on board were from the same neighbourhood in Mostaganem. I have had a chance to talk to many of their families, and they are destroyed. There is such grief but also no answers. There are only rumours, and some of the mothers believe their sons are in prisons in Morocco and Spain. We all have dreams [about the missing]. In the end, you trust what you will see in your dreams, like cosmic reality telling you he is coming. I dream of Oussama.”

Dr Pauline Boss, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota, USA, explains the concept of ambiguous loss: “It looks like complicated grief, intrusive thoughts,” she says. “There’s nothing else on your mind but the fact that your loved one is missing. You can’t grieve because that would mean the person is dead, and you don’t know for sure.”

A defective system

Of all the families of those who went missing on Oussama’s patera, only Tayeb and four other families have been able to file a missing persons report with the Spanish authorities, and only two have been able to give a DNA sample. According to a 2021 study from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), one of the major complications families face in their searches is that in order to register someone as a missing person in Spain, you have to file a report with police in the country itself, which for many families is “a virtually impossible feat” as there are no visas to travel for this purpose. 

The IOM report also notes that, while many families file missing person reports in their home countries, they are “aware of the almost symbolic nature of their efforts” and that “it will never result in any kind of investigation being launched in Spain.”

Along with the IOM, there have been efforts by domestic NGOs, including APDHA and more than a hundred grassroots organisations, to call out Spain’s failure to adapt existing missing person procedures to the transnational challenges of cases of people who disappeared while migrating. These organisations have repeatedly argued that the country’s legal framework regarding missing persons must be adapted to ensure families can file missing person cases from abroad. 

They have also pushed for the development of specific protocols for police handling cases of disappeared migrants, as well as the creation of a missing-migrant database so as to centralise information and allow it to be exchanged with authorities in other countries. The latter would include a full range of both post-mortem data (from tattoos to DNA, through cadaveric inspections and autopsies) and antemortem medical forensic information, that is, that which comes from family members regarding the missing person.

“The reality is that the situation across Europe is consistently poor,” explains Julia Black, an analyst with IOM’s Missing Migrant Project. “Despite our research showing these pressing needs of families, neither Spain nor any other European country has significantly changed policy or practice to help this neglected group [in recent years]. Support for families is available only on a very ad hoc basis, mostly in response to mass casualty events that are in the public eye, which leaves many thousands of people without meaningful support.”

Non-state actors such as the Red Cross and Walking Borders, as well as a network of independent activists, try to fill this void. “It’s a terrible job that we shouldn’t be doing, because states should be responding to families and guaranteeing the rights of victims across borders,” Maleno explains. In the case of the Mostaganem patera, Walking Borders is now planning to visit Algeria next year to take DNA samples from family members and bring them back to Spain. But Maleno also acknowledges that her NGO often has to then “apply a lot of pressure” to get authorities to accept these samples. 

This is something left-wing MP Jon Iñarritu from the Basque EH Bildu party also confirms: “As I sit on the Spanish parliament’s Interior Committee, I’ve had to intervene on a number of occasions to help families seeking to register DNA samples, talking with the foreign ministry or the interior ministry to get them to accept the samples. But it shouldn’t require action from an MP to get this to happen. The whole process needs to be standardised with clear and automatic protocols [for submission]. Right now, there’s no one clear way to do it.”

Even when IOM recommendations have become the subject of parliamentary debate in Spain, they have tended not to translate into government action. In 2021, for example, a resolution was passed by the Spanish Congress calling on the government to establish a dedicated state office for the families of disappeared migrants. “It’s clear we need to ease the administrative and bureaucratic ordeal for families by offering them a single point of contact [with state authorities],” explains Iñarritu, who sponsored the motion. 

Yet while even government parties voted in favour of the resolution, the countries’ current centre-left administration has failed to act on it in the 18 months since. “From my point of view, the government has no intention of implementing the proposal,” Iñarritu argues. “They were only offering symbolic support.” 

When the above points were put to Spain’s Interior ministry, the reply was that: “The treatment of unidentified corpses arriving on the Spanish coast is identical to that of any other corpse. In Spain, for the identification of corpses, the law enforcement agencies apply the INTERPOL Disaster Victim Identification Guide. Although this guide is especially indicated for events with multiple victims, it is also used as a reference for the identification of an isolated corpse.”

NGOs and campaigners insist, however, that the application of the INTERPOL guide is no substitute for a specific protocol tailored to the demands of missing migrant cases or for the creation of particular mechanisms to allow for the exchange of information with families and authorities in other jurisdictions.

Close connections with the people they have helped compensate for strained social interactions and online hate. “They call me brother, sister, and even father,” Rybak shares.

Burial rights

APDHA migration director Carlos Arce argues that, within a European framework that views irregular migration predominantly “through the prism of serious crime and border security, […] not even death or disappearance puts an end to the repeated assault on the dignity of migrant people.” Iñarritu also points to the EU’s wider border regime: “Many issues that don’t fit into this dominant policy framework, such as the right to identification, are simply left unmanaged on a day-to-day basis. They are simply not a priority.”

This is also clear with respect to the Spanish government’s inaction on guaranteeing a dignified burial to those whose bodies are recovered. As noted by a 2023 report from APDHA, “while repatriation is the most desired option for families […,] the cost is very high (thousands of euros) and very few of their [home countries’] embassies help [to cover it].” The NGO recommends that Spain establish repatriation agreements with the countries where migrants come from so as to create “mortuary safe passages” guaranteeing their return at a reduced cost.

Furthermore, Spain’s central government has also failed to put in place mechanisms to ensure the right of unidentified migrants to a dignified burial within the country, instead maintaining that local councils are responsible for all charitable burials. This has meant that very specific municipalities where coastguard rescue boats are stationed are left legally responsible for the bulk of the interments – and most of these municipalities lack local cemeteries able to cater for traditional Muslim burials. 

The potential for this issue to become a flashpoint for anti-immigration sentiment was made clear this September when the mayor of Mogán in Gran Canaria, Onalia Bueno, insisted that her municipality would no longer pay for such burials, as she did not want to “detract the costs from the taxes of my neighbours.”

Small wooden fishig boats (pateras) used by migrants crossing from the African continent to Spain lie abandoned in a boat cemetery in Barbate, Cádiz. Photo: Tina Xu

CEAR’s Juan Carlos Lorenzo condemns such “divisive language, which frames the issue in terms of wasting my ‘neighbours’ money’ on someone who is not a neighbour,” and points instead to the actions of municipalities in El Hierro as a positive counterexample.  

Carballo notes that “over 10,000 people have arrived in El Hierro since September, the same as the island’s population. These are quite long trips, between six and nine days at sea, and right now people are arriving in a terrible state of health. With those who have died in recent months, we’ve tried to offer them a dignified burial within the means at our disposal. We’ve had an imam present, with Islamic prayers said before the remains were laid to rest.” 

Currently, the responsibility of memorialising unidentified victims comes down to individual municipalities and even cemetery keepers. Like Gérman at the cemetery in Barbate, who tries to dignify the unmarked tombs by placing flowers on top of them, the cemetery of Motril has adorned tombs with poems. In Teguise, the council has an initiative encouraging locals to leave flowers on the migrant graves when they come to visit the remains of their own families.

In another memorial, a collection of around 50 discarded fishing boats has become a distinctive feature of Barbate port. These small wooden boats with Arabic script on their hulls were used by migrants attempting to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. Instead of the boats’ being scrapped, APDHA was able to convert the scrapyard into a memorial site and to place plaques on boats stating how many migrants were travelling on them and where and when they were found. 

In the case of little Alhassane Bangoura, residents routinely come to leave fresh flowers and tokens of affection, among which is a small granite bowl with his first name inscribed on it. But many victims are buried without any attempt at identification – and as countless NGOs, politicians and activists demand, it should not be simply left to good-willed residents, grave keepers or local councillors to ensure the last rights of the victims of Fortress Europe.

About the authors:

Eoghan Gilmartin is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Jacobin Magazine, The Guardian, Tribune and Open Democracy.

Leah Pattem is a British/Indian multimedia journalist based in Spain. She’s also the founder and editor of Madrid No Frills, an independent grassroots platform for the stories and images that define Madrid today.

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