‘Buried on the beach’: Who are the West African migrants whose bodies were washed ashore on the Senegalese coast?

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The Red Cross has warned of an increase in the number of migrants departing from the coast of West Africa to Spain. Many die along the way and their recovered bodies are buried directly on the beach without being identified.

The migration route from the West African coast to the Canary Islands or continental Spain is increasingly traveled. It may be just as dangerous as other routes – though much less talked about.

Lucile Marbeau of the Red Cross in France told InfoMigrants that the number of departures from West Africa, one of the main departure points for migrants heading to Europe in the mid-2000s, has risen over the past two years.

Case in point: On August 18, a boat with 150 people aboard was stranded on a beach in downtown Dakar. Other shipwrecks have been reported recently, particularly near Saint-Louis on the northern coast of Senegal and near Mauritania.

Not everyone is rescued. “Many migrant bodies wash up here because of the sandbar”, says Arona Mael Sow, deputy mayor of Ndiébène-Gandiol, a village of fishermen and farmers located at the mouth of the Senegal River near St. Louis. “When we find them we immediately call the police and firefighters” to try to identify them, Sow told French press agency AFP.

Identifying the bodies is a particularly difficult task because “bodies removed from the water are often in advanced decomposition”, Sow said. He said those bodies are simply “buried on the beach,” remaining anonymous victims.

The struggle to mourn for families of the missing

“Many of these migrants will never be identified. That is particularly distressing for families of missing loved ones who experience what is called an ‘ambiguous loss’ and who are struggling to mourn,” Marbeau said. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) launched the “Trace the Face” project in 2013 to help people find relatives who had gone missing while trying to migrate, and also to provide moral and social support to families. Between 2014 and 2017, 200 families benefited from the program.

“We are there to support them psychologically but also from an administrative and legal point of view. Am I a widow? How do I get a death certificate? The relatives of the missing are often on hold, their lives are almost frozen,” Marbeau said.

Khady Dièye, a resident of Ndiégène-Gandiol who now runs an organization for families of missing migrants with support by ICRC, can attest to that. “In 2006, my husband boarded a boat to Spain and I haven’t heard from him since,” pointing to a photo of her with her husband. He was 54 when he disappeared. With no news from him, the Senegalese mother of four resigned herself to saying goodbye: “We recited the Koran and gave alms for five months”, she said. But not all families are able to mourn. Some “continue to hope that their parents are still alive,” said Dièye to AFP.

‘The main problem is the lack of ‘ante mortem’ information’

“With the people of Thiaroye,” a village close to Dakar, “we discuss the unidentified migrants and how to identify them by their clothes, their watches, their faces, their IDs,” Dièye said. It was thanks to the clothes they were wearing and the good luck charms they carried that two youth from Gandiol who died last April were able to be identified, the town’s mayor said. In the nearby village of Pilote-Bar, it was “bracelets and rings” that made it possible to recognize the bodies, Issa Wade, head of another welfare association, told AFP.

The job becomes complicated when the drama unfolds hundreds, even thousands of kilometers away. “The main problem is [a lack of] ante mortem information.” Without knowing who [the victim] was — if she was 1.80m, how she was dressed or if she was wearing a ring or a bracelet — without having this information provided from close relatives, it is impossible [to identify victims],” José Baraybar of the ICRC forensic medicine service in Paris explained.

The puzzle of identification in Europe

Identification is also a challenge in Europe, especially for coroners in Spain, Italy, and Greece, where the Red Cross created a special team to train those dealing with bodies recovered in the Mediterranean Sea. Coastguards, medical examiners, prosecutors, municipalities: each link in the chain has a role to play in order to preserve as much information as possible in the hope that the migrant can be identified and the family notified.

The Red Cross encourages families of missing persons to send them as much information as possible about their loved ones, including what clothes or jewelry they were wearing, distinctive marks, an old fracture, a tattoo, etc. “We do not want to give false hope and we know that contacting us can reopen wounds, but a recovered body doesn’t speak. Only his family can help identify him.” In rare cases, families find a loved one still alive. Since the creation of “Trace the Face,” 114 families have been reunited.

By Anne-Diandra Louarn