“There is a lack of a national body that integrates all the information on the disappeared migrants”

  • The president of the Scientific-Technical Committee of the Forensic Medical Council, Rafael Bañón, speaks in this interview about the difficulties in identifying migrants who died at sea and how to improve the process

Rafael Bañon He is a forensic physician and former director of the Murcia and Alicante Institutes of Legal Medicine. At the age of 62, he chairs the Scientific-Technical Committee of the Forensic Medical Council, dependent on the Ministry of Justice and in charge of advising public bodies on expert matters.

2021 has been the deadliest on Spanish coasts since 1997, according to the World Organization for Migration. How would you describe the situation?

There are more deaths on the Canary Islands, first because the journey is more complicated and also because there is more flow than in the Mediterranean, where arrivals have increased but not much more than in other years. There is not a very important increase right now.

In what state do bodies usually arrive at institutes of forensic medicine?

It is variable. When the shipwreck or drowning occurs close to shore, they are usually in good condition because they are collected very early. When they are found much later and on the high seas – usually they get caught in the fishermen’s nets – they come with a lot of deterioration and it is very difficult to identify them.

How is the process to identify them?

It is part of the basic concepts of forensic science. There are first order identifying elements, which are fingerprints, dentistry and genetics. And then, of the second order, such as the clothes, the documentation that they carry or the physiognomic aspect. They are more for orientation but they can help you select with which samples you compare the corpse to give it a first-order orientation.

The only study regarding identification in Spain (1990-2013) concluded that 39% of bodies are identified. Why so few?

The first complication is the state of the body because, if you have been at sea for a long time, you collect only fragments and the identifying value is lost with the passage of time. Teeth, fingerprints are lost, and if you don’t have a reference, you can’t do DNA identification. The second problem is the lack of information before death Because to identify a missing person you have to compare him with a candidate and, to have candidates, you need information on the country of origin and the relatives.

What percentage is currently identified?

To find out, we should have global data. When it comes to shipwrecks near the coast and close in time, almost 100% are identified, especially when there are survivors. Of those that are collected by fishermen’s nets or pushed into the sea months later, the percentage is very low.

What are the most common causes of death?

It depends. The one who is shipwrecked upon reaching the coast is not the same as the one who is adrift for many days at sea. In the latter cases, they tend to die on the ship due to dehydration, malnutrition or hypothermia and, then, their own companions throw them into the sea. Drownings occur when a boat capsizes and they drown trying to reach shore.

What conclusions have you drawn as you have learned the identity of the castaways?

In the specific case of Murcia, which is what I know best, almost all the castaways come from the same area, the Algerian region between Mostagadem and Oran. They are mostly men, although there are also some women and exceptionally some children. Almost all are of young adulthood, between 20 and 30 years old, and correspond to the profile of what is known in slang as ‘harragas’, young people who burn their documentation before leaving and who are looking for a new life on the continent.

Some experts argue that the problem in Spain is that there are not enough means or a centralized body to channel searches and identifications.

It is a problem because as the jurisdiction for the investigation depends on the investigating courts – territorially delimited – it can happen that a boat is shipwrecked next to a town but the corpses appear in different competent places of another court or command of the civil guard. That dispersion makes it difficult for a shipwreck to be investigated as a single multi-casualty incident. It is a problem that we have already identified and we believe that it should be solved. The other problem is poor communication with the countries of origin to obtain matching samples.

Are there enough means?

Means there are plenty. If a genetic test is required we do not ask how much it costs. We do it and the system pays for it. The problem is that if we have family members located, it doesn’t make much sense for us to make a rogatory commission and set up a private flight to collect those samples. It would have to be done through international channels or courier services. There, the role of the NGOs as the Red Cross is fundamental.

Would it help to have a body dedicated to the search and identification of migrants like Italy has, which has a high commissioner?

I don’t know about the High Commissioner’s case. Italy has a similar problem, with the disadvantage that it lacks a medico-legal system that covers the entire territory to be able to offer a centralized response. We have a good individual response to each case that is presented, but we lack a national body that integrates all the information.

Would it serve to increase the identification index?

Yes. Anything that improves the transfer of information always helps to increase the number of identifications that are made.

What is done with the corpses that are not claimed or are not identified?

Those who cannot be repatriated are buried in Spain in an identified niche. If it has not been possible to identify them, they are kept for a reasonable time in a cold room while it is investigated and, if it is not possible, they are buried – they are never cremated – in an identified niche in case their relatives claim it tomorrow and the body can be exhumed for repatriation to the country of origin.

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Are they not buried in mass graves?

No, I cannot speak of all the cemetery in Spain, but in the case of Murcia they are buried in an identified niche and even as time passes, if remains have to be reduced, the City Council puts them in bags with the identifying data that could be then hand over to relatives. This has no deadline.


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