'It is easier to come to Germany as a dead migrant than as a live one'
JOHN MACDOUGALL (AFP)
On Tuesday, a funeral was held in Berlin for a 34-year-old Syrian refugee and her two-year-old daughter. Another is scheduled on Friday for a 60-year-old Syrian man who died as a result of the unbearable conditions in international waters.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), an estimated 1,800 asylum seekers drowned or starved to death at sea since the beginning of 2015, out of 103,000 who attempted the hazardous journey to Europe. The identity of many remains unknown, as does their burial place. Their final resting place, in many cases, was an unmarked mass grave in the backlands of Italy or Greece.
Now human rights activists are taking action: The Center for Political Beauty, a Berlin-based collective of artists, journalists and researchers, claims to have exhumed bodies buried in the periphery of Europe and transported them to Germany, where they are to be properly buried. The activists state they intend to bring hundreds of bodies from southern Europe. “The dead are coming,” warns their campaign.
“The German government’s worst nightmare is coming true,” state the activists. “We will tear down the walls surrounding Europe’s sense of compassion.”
“The shameful fact is that it's easier to come to Germany as a dead migrant than as a live one,” Justus Lenz of the Center, tells i24news. “At the moment there's no legal and safe way to migrate into Europe, and the fact that people are still choosing this life-threatening path through the Mediterranean, says a lot about the situation in their home country. And yet, Europe takes a militaristic approach toward securing the borders, against basic human decency and empathy.”
In August 2010, a mass grave was discovered in Sidiro, Greece. In it were the bodies of more than 200 people who drowned while trying to reach Greece from Turkey. The center claims to have tracked more recent incidents of mistreatment of refugees' bodies, including 13 bodies of missing persons discovered in a Sicilian warehouse in January, after laying there for eight months due to “bureaucratic obstacles.”
In May, when the Italian navy recovered the bodies of 17 migrants activists accused the authorities of placing the remains in coffins for a photo-op at the harbor, and then moving them into garbage bags and throwing them on top of each other in a cooling chamber at a local hospital.
“The situation in Italy and in some parts of Greece is truly horrific, and it proves how overwhelmed these counties are,” says Lenz. “There are undignified mass graves, where bodies are buried anonymously, and no one bothers to get in touch with their relatives, even though many of them carry their passports with them. That's why we are taking up the task, conducting the necessary research and get in touch with the relative of the deceased to receive their consent.”
According to the group, after months of crowdfunded research and cutting through red tape, they've exhumed the first bodies from a cemetery in Sicily where they were anonymously buried. “Everything is done legally,” assures the activist. “We've taken care of all the paperwork and talked to all the authorities involved.” The bodies were then transported to Berlin.
The first funeral, on Tuesday, was attended by more journalists than mourners.
About 70 people watched the burial of two white coffins, one with the body of the Syrian woman and the other, which was reportedly empty, for her daughter, whose body was never found. The activists watched the Muslim service with dirt smeared on their faces, surrounding a group of empty chairs, reserved for leading German politicians who ignored the invitation to attend. The woman's husband and other children, who survived the capsizing, were also absent since they aren't allowed to cross the border into Germany. “At least they are closer,” says Lenz. “These migrants strive to get to Europe and it's sad that this women only reached it after she died.”
On Sunday the activists are planning to march with excavators to the Chancellery building in Berlin, where they wish to lay “the foundations for an unprecedented burial ground: a memorial for the victims of Europe’s military isolation.”
“There aren’t enough cemeteries in Italy and Greece due to the vast amount of victims of Europe’s War of Defense. There is, however, still sufficient space right in front of the political decision-makers.” A loophole in Berlin’s burial law, so they claim, makes this perfectly legal.
Reactions are mixed: While their intention was appreciated, many criticized the use of human remains to draw attention, and the German media is asking whether the endeavor is a publicity stunt.
“Nothing we do can be more cynical and disgraceful than watching people die daily in the Mediterranean and doing nothing about it,” emphasizes Lenz. He also explains that returning the refugees' bodies to their countries of origin isn't an option due to the instability of most. “This is a moral issue,” he stresses. “The heart of the European continent needs to be ashamed. Germany is trying to push away the problem, but this is a European problem which needs to be addressed together. There should be basic human solidarity, the European wall must come down.”
Polina Garaev is the i24news correspondent in Germany.
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"Activists exhume remains of anonymous migrants and place them in mass graves in Berlin" This "activists" = criminals!