Source: New Yorker
The Crisis of Missing Migrants
What has become of the tens of thousands of people who have disappeared on their way to Europe?
January 9, 2023
Cristina Cattaneo, a forensic scientist, said, “Knowing whether your son is dead or not is a fundamental right.”Illustration by Chris Kim
By the time Nasenet Alme Wildmikael arrived in Germany, in 2015, she had passed through four countries by land or sea and had spent a month in a migrant prison. Wildmikael was twenty-three and petite, with full cheeks and a puff of curly hair. She had grown up in a small town in western Eritrea, the fourth of ten children. Her father died when she was young, and her mother raised the kids alone, working as a laundress. Although they had little money, she refused to let her children work. Wildmikael’s home life was happy. She loved cars and wanted to be a mechanic. But there was little opportunity for the necessary schooling, and her future was uncertain. “Even if you dreamed to have something more, you knew that you would never reach it,” she told me recently.
When Wildmikael was sixteen, she fell in love with a neighbor, a boy named Biniam, and soon became pregnant. Their son, Yafet, was born in 2008. Biniam took part in the baptism and promised to marry Wildmikael, but he left for Sudan before Yafet turned one. This was her first heartbreak. Biniam didn’t explain why he left, but Wildmikael believed that he wasn’t ready to be a father and wanted to escape repression in Eritrea. President Isaias Afwerki, the country’s longtime leader, has been accused of a variety of human-rights violations, including mass surveillance, arbitrary arrest, torture, and indefinite military conscription for Eritreans. To leave the country, Eritreans must have an exit visa, but the government rarely grants them. Many citizens feel trapped. Some five thousand people a month attempt, illegally and at great risk, to leave the country, according to the United Nations. (The Eritrean government has denied committing human-rights violations.) Wildmikael’s brother, at sixteen, had to enter military service, where conscripts endure forced labor, low pay, and physical abuse; those caught trying to escape are imprisoned or killed. “I didn’t want my son to be in the military,” Wildmikael told me. When she was eighteen, she left Eritrea with Yafet, walking three days through the desert to reach Sudan.
In Khartoum, the capital, Wildmikael spent six years serving chai at a café. Biniam also lived in the city, but he was not involved in Yafet’s life. Wildmikael and Biniam were both undocumented, a precarious status in Sudan: security services have abducted Eritreans living in Khartoum to send them back. By the spring of 2013, Biniam, at the age of twenty-six, had left Sudan. Later that year, Wildmikael found out that he had disappeared. He had been texting friends throughout his journey, but his messages stopped after he boarded a boat in Libya, bound for Italy. Soon afterward, on October 3rd, a rickety fishing boat crammed with migrants, many of them Eritrean, sank off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island. The authorities found the remains of three hundred and sixty-six people in the wreckage. Photographs of the possible victims circulated among the tight-knit Eritrean community in Khartoum, and Wildmikael saw someone who looked like Biniam. She felt grief. “I was really hurt by him, but I loved him,” she said. “I grew up without a father, and I didn’t want my son to grow up without a father, too.”
Two years later, Wildmikael decided to try making it to Europe, too. “I knew that it was difficult to go from Sudan to Libya, especially if you are a woman,” she said. “I knew that people were dying in the sea to reach Europe. I knew everything. But I made the decision.” She wanted to earn money to send to her mother back home, and to give Yafet opportunities that she had been denied. “I really wanted to study and to have a job, a normal life,” she told me. She decided to leave Yafet, who was six, with a family friend in Khartoum. This was her second heartbreak. But it was for his safety: she knew a woman who had drowned in the sea with her sons. If Wildmikael received asylum in Europe, she thought, Yafet could fly to join her.
She made her way through the Sahel desert, using a route where many migrants have died of hunger or thirst, and where sexual violence is so common that some women take contraceptives before embarking. In Libya, she was held in a detention center in Tripoli. The guards fed the prisoners once a day and frequently beat the male detainees. After a month, she was released, and paid almost two thousand dollars to board a boat to Italy. “When I was on the boat, I thought I would never reach the ground again,” Wildmikael said. “But, alhamdulillah, I arrived.” She continued on to Germany, and was eventually granted asylum and given a renewable two-year residency permit. She moved to Vacha, a serene town in the center of the country, where she enrolled in German classes and made friends with her neighbors, an elderly German couple who helped her navigate the grocery store. “I felt like I had freedom,” she said.
But when she called the German Embassy in Khartoum to send for Yafet, she was told that he couldn’t join her. German law stipulated that she needed his father’s consent to bring him, or a death certificate proving that his father was dead. Migrants who don’t survive the journey to Europe are rarely found or identified, though, and Wildmikael had no proof of Biniam’s death. She hired a lawyer, who told her that, without official documentation, she had little recourse. When I met Wildmikael, last year, she had not seen Yafet, who is now fourteen, in almost eight years. They had interacted only through daily video calls. She sent three hundred euros a month to Sudan for his needs, including to pay for a private tutor, because he couldn’t attend school as an undocumented migrant. “He’s a really smart boy,” she told me. “He studies every day, and he learns quickly.” Yafet had recently asked if he could make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean himself, to join her.
Last year, through Eritrean diaspora networks, Wildmikael contacted a forensic anthropologist named Cristina Cattaneo, the head of the Anthropological and Odontological Lab (labanof), at the State University of Milan. Cattaneo has spent much of her career identifying the bodies of people who have gone missing in Italy. Since 2013, she has also used the tools of forensic science—antemortem photographs, dental superimpositions, body markings, personal belongings, DNA samples—to help identify the bodies of missing migrants. When Cattaneo first heard from Wildmikael, she was struck by how long Biniam had been missing, with no state effort to determine what had happened to him. “You feel that the system has failed enormously,” she told me. “We have European relatives of victims of disasters who complain, rightly so, because they have to wait two or three weeks for a burn victim to be identified. It’s even more outrageous that people have to wait ten years.” Cattaneo hopes to give some dignity to the deceased, and a sense of closure to the living. She immediately took on the case. “It’s about respecting the rights of humans to have their dead identified,” she said.
In the past decade, the Mediterranean Sea and the shores of Italy, Malta, Cyprus, and Greece have become a vast graveyard. As a result of conflict, repression, economic circumstances, famine, and drought, more than two million people have tried to cross the Mediterranean to Europe since 2014, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. At least twenty-five thousand have disappeared in the crossing and are presumed dead. Most of these bodies remain at the bottom of the sea; some have washed ashore and been buried in unmarked graves—two thousand in Italy alone. The relatives of those who go missing are often left with only social-media posts from their loved ones and unfinished text conversations. “What about the families? There’s nobody that provides an answer,” José Pablo Baraybar, the forensic coördinator at the International Committee of the Red Cross, in Paris, said.
The International Commission on Missing Persons was started in 1996, by President Bill Clinton, after the conflict in the Balkans. Forty thousand people had gone missing. The I.C.M.P. helped countries arrange the excavation of mass graves and the extraction of DNA from human remains. Seventy per cent of the bodies were ultimately identified. In 2004, after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, the organization helped affected countries extract DNA samples to build an extensive database of the missing, which led to the identification of tens of thousands of people. “Finding missing persons and investigating their disappearances is a state responsibility, regardless of whether the person is a citizen or noncitizen, regardless of their nationality, their ethnic background, their racial background,” Kathryne Bomberger, the Commission’s director-general, told me. “Clearly, there is a double standard.”
The I.C.M.P. has pushed for a similar effort to locate and identify the bodies of deceased migrants today, and to investigate their disappearances. In 2017, a member of the Italian parliament proposed a motion that would fund migrant identification, but it never made it to a vote. The following year, Italy, Malta, Greece, and Cyprus agreed to share information on the DNA of migrant bodies with the Commission, but so far none of the countries have submitted the relevant data. Instead, the European Union has invested heavily in efforts to block migration, even at the risk of contributing to migrant deaths. In 2018, it equipped and trained the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept migrants headed for Europe. Sometimes the Coast Guard sank boats in the process. Captured migrants have been taken to prisons in Libya, where they have been tortured, extorted, and sold into forced labor. The E.U. has discouraged humanitarian groups from rescuing migrants in sinking boats; Italy has repeatedly blocked vessels carrying migrants from disembarking in its waters.
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Unrecorded deaths have legal ramifications. People who can’t prove that a spouse has died find it difficult to remarry. The relatives of missing migrants face challenges when filing civil suits or joining criminal proceedings against smugglers accused of overloading boats or sending faulty ships to sea. When governments are at fault, it is difficult for families to hold them accountable. In late June, about two thousand migrants and refugees from Sudan and other African countries tried to scale a border fence between Morocco and Melilla, a Spanish enclave. Dozens were injured in a stampede, and security forces in Morocco savagely beat the migrants and shot them with rubber bullets. On the other side of the fence, Spanish guards tear-gassed them. At least twenty-three people were killed, and seventy-seven were reported missing. In the days afterward, the Moroccan Association for Human Rights posted photographs on Twitter showing freshly dug graves, and alleged that the government planned to bury the deceased without identifying them, alerting their families, or investigating the causes of their deaths. (The Spanish Ministry of the Interior has stated that its security forces, and those of Morocco, “acted in a proportional and temperate manner.”)
Psychiatrists call the emotional purgatory of not knowing whether a loved one is dead “ambiguous loss.” Family members suffer the pain of knowing that a loved one is likely gone, but are denied the rituals of mourning—burial, funeral—that allow them to move on. “From a clinical point of view, the symptoms are quite similar to those of people tortured,” Marzia Marzagalia, a psychiatrist in Milan who treats migrants, told me. Those suffering from ambiguous loss often struggle with sleeping and eating, have nightmares, feel that they are in danger, and experience obsessive ideation and physical pain. Ambiguous loss can also lead to depression and alcoholism, and has been linked to cancer, gastrointestinal disorders, and immunological diseases. “I have a mother who lost three children,” Marzagalia said. “She didn’t see them die on the boat. She left with them and arrived alone. And she goes on looking for them.”
Cattaneo, of labanof, the forensic lab, is fifty-eight and slight, with curly, dyed-blond hair, a scratchy voice, and a forceful bearing. She speaks quickly in both Italian and English, and generally expects others to get to the point quickly, too. She grew up in Montreal, studied biomedical sciences at McGill University, and co-founded labanof, in 1995. In its early years, the lab primarily worked to identify the victims of murders or accidental deaths in Milan. “If the body doesn’t have a name, how can you start investigating the crime?” she said. In 2007, Cattaneo’s lab spurred the creation of Italy’s Special Office of the Commissioner for Missing Persons, which now coördinates identification efforts. In 2012, the lab created a national database that collected photographs of unidentified bodies, the country’s first. Three years later, two Croatian sisters found a photo of their father, who had been missing for twenty years, and learned that he had died suddenly on a work trip to Milan; they had always believed that he had walked out on their family. “Twenty-five years ago, many of the unidentified bodies that we were doing autopsies on were migrants from Ukraine or Romania,” Cattaneo said. “But never like this.”
On October 3, 2013, Cattaneo was in Geneva, speaking at the International Committee of the Red Cross, when she saw the news that a migrant boat had sunk less than two miles from Lampedusa’s coast—one of the first big disasters of what came to be called the “migrant crisis.” Five hundred and eighteen people had been on board, and most had died. “I was outraged,” Cattaneo recalled. None of their families would ever know what happened to them. Cattaneo agitated the Special Office of the Commissioner for Missing Persons to allow the lab to identify the victims. People thought that the process would be too onerous, she told me, and that the families wouldn’t care about learning their relatives’ fates. “We said, Let’s try,” Cattaneo recalled. “Let’s do one pilot study.”
The police had already recovered the bodies from the wreck and taken photographs and DNA samples. They were able to identify a hundred and fifty people, and asked Cattaneo’s lab to help with a hundred and seventy-six more. The Italian missing-persons office requested that Sudanese and Eritrean embassies in other European countries announce that Italy was trying to identify victims from the boat. In the months that followed, eighty families paid their own way from Denmark, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere in Europe to meet with Cattaneo’s team, in Milan and Rome. They carried photographs of missing family members and brought relatives who could give DNA samples; one family brought nail clippings from a grandmother who could not travel, in case they proved useful. On the morning of the meetings in Milan, Cattaneo found several families sleeping on benches in the lobby of the lab. At the meetings in Rome, an older Eritrean man, whose son had gone missing, sat in a corridor of a government building watching CNN footage of a recovery effort after a recent plane crash. “He was seeing everyone run for those people,” Cattaneo said. “But he had waited a year for someone to move a finger for his son.”
In some instances, when the bodies were well preserved, Cattaneo’s team was able to make quick identifications using recognizable tattoos or dental superimpositions. She identified a dozen bodies within days, with photographs provided by relatives. “They were showing us the Facebook profile of the missing person, and you had amazing pictures of tattoos, people on the beach with the smiles showing the dental profile—and you can identify with that,” she said. One Eritrean woman was looking for her nephew, who had just graduated from high school and had ritual facial scarring; Cattaneo soon identified his body. The son of the man who had been watching CNN had a tattoo of a cross, and Cattaneo found him as well. In the end, Cattaneo’s lab and the police identified about sixty per cent of the people whom the families were searching for. “It showed that you can identify these migrants, and that people are looking for their loved ones,” Cattaneo said. “I was really happy to prove people wrong.”
This past March, I visited Cattaneo on the campus of the State University of Milan, in Città Studi, the city’s academic district. Her office, just above the lab, is big and homey, with a red couch covered in letters and anatomy books. A replica of Michelangelo’s last Pietà—representing empathy for the relatives of the dead, she told me—stood near the room where her team meets with migrants’ family members, at the top of a staircase that leads to the city morgue. Outside, it had been sunny, but downstairs the lab was cool, lit by fluorescent lights. One lecture hall had a ceramic table on which Mussolini’s autopsy had been performed.
Cattaneo took me to a room containing human remains from a shipwreck. Hundreds of beige boxes stacked along a wall held personal belongings that had been found on the boat: love letters, I.D. cards, wallets, glasses, headphones, toothbrushes, jewelry, Fanta soda cans, prayer books. I saw children’s socks and school report cards. Cattaneo showed me bundles of photographs of shipwreck victims at weddings, graduations, birthdays. There was also a stack of thank-you notes from families whose relatives had been identified. “The main reason, for me, to identify the dead is to respect the mental health of the living,” Cattaneo said.
Since the lab’s early days, it has received no state funding, relying instead on grants from nonprofits. In between criminal investigations and teaching at the university, Cattaneo has to squeeze in her migrant-identification work, with help from a volunteer team of devoted forensic anthropologists and graduate students. The lab has solved fifty cases. But there are still four hundred and thirty open cases from sixty-eight shipwrecks on which the team has gathered data. Cattaneo said, of her team’s work so far, “This was done to prove a point, but it can’t be it.”
The successes can be gratifying. Last year, she took on a case for Abraham Gmichael, an Eritrean immigrant living in Australia. Gmichael’s brother-in-law Abrahele, a teacher, had resisted Eritrea’s compulsory military service and, at thirty, with a wife and three young children at home, decided to make his way to Europe. He planned to bring his family once he was settled. Gmichael had lost touch with Abrahele in October, 2013, around the time of the Lampedusa shipwreck. When Gmichael’s family heard that the boat had sunk, they suspected that Abrahele had been on board. “It was horrific,” Gmichael recalled. “You can’t even express it in words.” Abrahele’s wife lost consciousness and fell. “It was scary. Not only him—I had neighbors, close friends, who lost their lives. It was chaos. Many people around me were grieving.” Last year, Gmichael tried to sponsor Abrahele’s wife—Gmichael’s wife’s sister—and children to join his family in Australia. But the Australian Department of Home Affairs required Abrahele’s death certificate.
Gmichael spoke to Tareke Brhane, an Eritrean activist in Italy who has become one of the most prominent advocates for migrants in Europe. Brhane contacted Cattaneo. He then helped the International Organization for Migration obtain DNA samples from Abrahele’s children, who were in Ethiopia, and Cattaneo tested the samples against the DNA extracted from the shipwreck victims. The samples were a match. “It was a case where you had three children, and then, zoom, you bang in on the DNA,” she said. Abrahele had died on the boat, and Cattaneo knew where his body had been buried. His widow and children are now preparing to move to Australia. “It feels amazing,” Gmichael said. “His parents, when they heard that his death certificate was ready, they celebrated. Because now we know that he actually lost his life. It makes a big difference to them.”
But the work is not always so straightforward. In 2015, another migrant boat sank between Libya and Lampedusa. The vessel, a twenty-metre fishing boat, had been carrying roughly a thousand people. Italy arrested the traffickers, who had charged passengers twelve hundred to eighteen hundred dollars for passage—extra if they wanted life jackets—and had cut marks on the heads of those who disobeyed orders; they had also forced passengers to sit on the hatch of the hull once it started filling with water, to stop people inside from escaping. Two men were convicted of human trafficking and manslaughter. A year after the boat sank, Italy raised it from the sea and tugged it to the Sicilian town of Melilli. The Special Office of the Commissioner for Missing Persons asked Cattaneo’s lab and other universities to perform autopsies on the bodies before they were put in coffins and buried. “When the fire brigade opened the boat, there were layers and layers and layers of dead bodies face down,” Cattaneo recalled. “I tried to put my arm in to see if I could reach the last layer, and I couldn’t feel it. It gives you the impression of what kind of an end they met, and how desperate they must have been to have travelled in that situation.” There were dozens more bodies below the cargo hold and in the space where the anchor chains should have been stored. Cattaneo saw skeletons of adolescents under the floorboards. The way people had been crammed onto the boat reminded her of images she had seen of slave ships. The victims were from Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Bangladesh, and elsewhere; half were between the ages of thirteen and seventeen.
Cattaneo and her team did autopsies for three straight months, inside a hangar on a military base in Melilli that overlooked the sea. While performing an autopsy on a nineteen-year-old boy, Cattaneo found that he was carrying a plastic bag of soil; she wondered at first if it was drugs. But when her team found other passengers with similar bags, she learned that they were carrying earth from their home countries. It made her think of the summers she spent as a child in her ancestral village, in northern Italy, and then having to return to Canada; she would break off twigs from trees and put them in the pages of her books. “I was surprised, and ashamed that I was surprised,” she said. The International Committee of the Red Cross worked with Cattaneo’s lab to get DNA profiles from a hundred and twenty families, and to interview survivors, people who had tried to board the boat but were turned away, and smugglers. But identification was more difficult than it had been with the Lampedusa wreck. Because the boat had been underwater for a year, most of the victims’ faces had dissolved, and some of their remains had commingled, making DNA testing difficult. The lab identified just six people from the wreckage.
Back in 2013, a week after the October 3rd sinking, another boat had sunk in Maltese waters. Some three hundred Syrian migrants, many of them children, drowned. Officers with the Italian Coast Guard were arrested for failing to help, despite receiving several distress calls. (The case never went to trial, and the statute of limitations for the charges expired in 2022.) “Italy was saying it’s Malta’s responsibility, and Malta was saying it was Italy’s responsibility, and they all died because it was nobody’s responsibility,” Cattaneo said. She interviewed several Syrian parents and took DNA samples from them. One father, a doctor, told Cattaneo that all three of his children had disappeared when the boat capsized. But Cattaneo has not identified any bodies from the wreck. The lab had only twenty-one bodies; Malta reported having twenty-eight. The rest were likely still in the sea. “None of the people who gave us their DNA have their loved ones among the cadavers,” Cattaneo said. “And nobody is talking about raising other boats.”
In the lab, Cattaneo and a colleague, a forensic anthropologist named Debora Mazzarelli, turned to Wildmikael’s case. They had been trying for months to verify that Biniam was in the October 3rd shipwreck. The survivors had compiled a list of possible passengers, and he was on it. Cattaneo and Mazzarelli saw a photograph of a corpse with a facial structure that resembled Biniam’s—“Nobody else looked like him,” Cattaneo said—though it was hard to be sure. The body was bloated, and the photographs that Wildmikael had sent were out of focus. But they sent Wildmikael pictures of the corpse, and she felt sure that it was him. When Wildmikael had first heard the news that Biniam might be dead, she was angry—that he had left her, that he had never got to truly know his son. But when she saw the photographs she cried. “I realized he had actually died,” Wildmikael said. “Once I saw the picture, I realized it was real.” Still, identifications using visual clues such as photographs, without scientific support, are wrong thirty per cent of the time. Cattaneo’s lab needed more. She decided to run a DNA test to see if the body was a match with Yafet. “You know how many cases we have where we’re so close?” she said.
The island of Lampedusa exists in an uneasy tension: it is both a holiday destination, because of its white-sand beaches, and the first stop for migrants crossing the Mediterranean, because it is the closest Italian point to Africa. I recently visited the island with a group of activists from the 3rd of October Committee, an N.G.O. created after the Lampedusa shipwreck. The group was led by Brhane, the Eritrean activist in Italy. Tall and lanky, with a cloud of black hair and an easy way with strangers, he had spent four years in Libyan detention centers before finally making it to Europe and receiving asylum. “I still question, How did I cross the desert, survive the prisons and the violence, and I’m still smiling?” Brhane said. We had spent the day at a school on the island, where Brhane and his colleagues spoke about why people leave their homes to come to Europe. Afterward, Brhane visited a cemetery where migrants are buried in unmarked graves. Flowers from townspeople adorned several headstones. The group had been pushing local political leaders to memorialize the deaths of unidentified migrants. “We’re going to go all over cities in Sicily trying to map who is buried there, who has a name or not,” Brhane said.
The October 3rd sinking was an unprecedented event in Italy. “For the first time, the sea gave us back the bodies,” Brhane said. “Nobody could say they did not know. Nobody could say they did not see it.” For about six months, he went on, Italian politicians and the country’s media showed compassion for migrant deaths. But then their attention drifted elsewhere. Every October, his organization holds a weekend of events on Lampedusa to preserve the incident in the national memory; survivors and relatives of the missing, including a Syrian couple who lost their children, come to the island. “It’s difficult because a lot of families still believe their relatives are alive,” Brhane said. “Only a small percentage have the bodies to test the DNA. The majority are in the sea, and the Italian government does not want to spend the money to bring them out. They are waiting for answers that we cannot give them. They are suffering.”
Thirteen per cent of the bodies of migrants who died on journeys between 2014 and 2019 have been recovered, according to estimates. The rest are still at the bottom of the Mediterranean or decomposing in North African deserts. “Seventy per cent of the bodies no longer exist,” Baraybar, of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told me. “So we also have to do forensics without bodies. Their fate can only be inferred.” A group of Tunisian mothers looking for their sons had given samples of their DNA to the lab, but Cattaneo had no bodies or genetic profiles from the relevant shipwrecks to test them against. “You just feel this huge sense of responsibility,” she said. “You know that most of the time you won’t be able to give them an answer.” Even when Cattaneo has the bodies, it’s difficult to find the families they belong to. She relies on activists, like Brhane, who are connected to migrant diasporas. “Where do you get hold of the relatives? How?” she said. “Some may be in the countries of origin, some may be in transition, some may already be in Europe.”
Cattaneo believed that European countries should be forced to recover bodies from their waters and to pay for autopsies, outreach, and DNA testing. The countries should then store this information on a database. “These countries have not experienced a missing-persons problem at this level since the Balkans or World War Two, so those mechanisms, to be fair, don’t exist,” Bomberger, of the International Commission on Missing Persons, said. “But the numbers of missing persons around the world is on the rise. Cristina’s a hero, but it can’t be the burden of one woman to deal with twenty thousand disappearances.”
Few European leaders agree. “Not only is the problem not considered a problem for lots of political actors—it’s a great angle for a right-wing government to leverage for their own benefit,” Simon Robins, a researcher on humanitarian protections, said. Baraybar believes that, as long as countries don’t modify their migration policies, “a magical solution doesn’t exist,” because so few bodies are recovered. It cost Italy 9.5 million euros to raise the Melilli boat from the water; raising more vessels could be prohibitively expensive. Conservative politicians have argued that migrants are crossing the sea by choice and know the potential consequences. Lena Düpont, a German member of the European Parliament, told me that money would be better spent on efforts to prevent migration in the first place, including investing in development in sub-Saharan Africa and continuing partnerships with the Libyan Coast Guard to stop migrants from reaching Europe. “It’s not that we don’t care about those who drown in the Mediterranean,” Düpont said. She later added, “We want to prevent dead bodies from being thrown to the shores of our union. . . . We need to focus on having the right instruments in hand, and a functioning system, for preventing those deaths, given that we do have tight resources at the European level.” Meanwhile, anti-migrant sentiment continues to sweep through Europe. “Stop landings” was a popular slogan during Italy’s elections last year, in which Giorgia Meloni, a far-right nationalist, was elected Prime Minister. “Italy cannot accept tens of thousands of immigrants who only bring problems,” Matteo Salvini, a former interior minister, said, days before a recent visit to Lampedusa. “Italy is not Europe’s refugee camp.”
During my visit to Milan, I sat in on a virtual meeting between Cattaneo and Pierfrancesco Majorino, another member of the European Parliament. Majorino had arranged for Cattaneo to testify before Parliament in support of a bill on migrant identification. “They’re hearing us for six whole minutes,” Cattaneo told me dryly. The bill would make European countries responsible for identifying the bodies of migrants found in their waters and create a database that humanitarian organizations could use to identify them. “The core of your message should be that Europe needs to recognize the right of identification,” Majorino told her. Cattaneo said, “We’ve met hundreds of families who have brought us information, and it’s just not getting across, and nobody’s doing anything. It’s morally outrageous.”
Even with such a law in place, the work would remain difficult. “It’s not like an air crash, where you have two hundred victims and you have a passenger list,” Cattaneo said. “It’s more like a tsunami, but it’s even more difficult because you don’t have one tragedy on one date. You have thousands of disasters—and small disasters. One fishing boat with five victims, the other one’s a thousand.” She believed that Europe could make the journey less brutal in the first place, allowing migrants to travel safely through humanitarian corridors. “There shouldn’t be all these dead people,” Cattaneo said. “It’s crazy.” Russian troops had invaded Ukraine a few weeks earlier, and Europe had been extraordinarily welcoming to refugees. Germany and Austria were offering free train rides, and the European Union had activated, for the first time, a “temporary protection directive,” which allowed Ukrainian refugees to remain in Europe for at least a year, with the right to work and to use social services. “It is done for Ukrainians because they are Ukrainians and not sub-Saharan Africans,” Cattaneo said. Majorino replied, “There is no doubt that their origin is the deciding factor.”
This past spring, I visited Wildmikael at her home in Vacha. It was her day off—she worked in the warehouse of an online retailer—and she was wearing a lemon-yellow sweatshirt and gray sweatpants. She made tea and prepared a plate of spaghetti, then led me to her living room, which was decorated with candles and plants. She had dedicated part of a wall to photographs of her family and of classmates from her German-language class. Brhane had recently arranged to have a DNA sample taken from her son, Yafet, which Cattaneo would test against the body that had been recovered from the October 3rd wreck. “I’m a little scared,” Wildmikael said.
In September, Cattaneo learned the result: the DNA samples did not match. At first, Cattaneo considered the possibility that the body was in fact Biniam’s but that he was not really Yafet’s father. Yet Wildmikael insisted that he was the only man she had ever been with. Cattaneo analyzed the samples again, but got another negative result. In the end, she decided that the body was probably not Biniam’s, after all. “The geneticist said it’s either some very rare—though we don’t know how frequent it is in sub-Saharan populations—mutation or it’s not him,” Cattaneo said. She had also checked Yafet’s DNA against all of the lab’s genetic profiles from the wreck, but none had matched. “This boy’s father could have never been recovered from the sea,” she said. “Maybe he was in another shipwreck.” Wildmikael, after several months of waiting, was incredulous when she heard the news, and then devastated. “The only thing I am sure of is that he died on the way to Italy,” she said. “Apart from that, I don’t know if that is the body of the father of my son.”
On my last day in Milan, Cattaneo and I walked through the city toward Piazza del Duomo. The missing-migrants crisis was not confined to Europe. The remains of hundreds of deceased migrants are found at the U.S.-Mexico border every year, and families rely on volunteers to piece together the fate of loved ones. “Knowing whether your son is dead or not is a fundamental right,” Cattaneo told me. “In other historical periods, the dead were treated with more respect.” She said that she was ready, if necessary, to sue on behalf of family members of the missing: “If the European Parliament, having known all this information, consciously says, ‘We don’t care, we won’t do anything about this,’ then we start the class-action lawsuit.”
Wildmikael was now one of countless people who would probably never know what happened to a missing relative. “We have so many people in situations like this,” Gmichael, the Eritrean whose brother-in-law was identified, told me. “So many young people have lost their lives, and their parents don’t know where they are for more than ten, fifteen years.” Gmichael had heard of fathers calling on community elders to help fabricate stories about missing children in order to soothe mothers who needed closure. “The story of almost every household in Eritrea is so terrible,” he said.
Wildmikael recently submitted a visa application for Yafet. Biniam had now been missing for almost ten years, which could make the application easier to file, and she also included the survivors’ manifest of the October 3rd shipwreck, which listed Biniam as having been on board. If Yafet’s application wasn’t successful, he could apply again when he turned eighteen, in four years, at which point the barriers for him to come to Germany would be lower. But four years was a long time. Although Wildmikael talked to her son every day, she could no longer remember what it was like to be with him in person. And she had to make peace with the fact that she would probably never know what happened to Biniam. “He was the father of my son, and now he’s dead, and they don’t believe me,” she said. “I just need an answer.”
♦Published in the print edition of the January 16, 2023, issue, with the headline “The Missing.”