Victims of exhaustion, violence or disease, many migrants die each year on their journey to Europe. In Morocco, a country that lies on a common route taken by undocumented migrants to reach Spain, one volunteer organisation is working to identify those who died along the way and give them dignified burials.
Many people from sub-Saharan Africa attempting to reach Europe cross the Moroccan-Algerian border. Bodies are often discovered along the border, which stretches 500 kilometres from Saïda, in northern Morocco, to the southern town of Figuig.
‘Most of the families don’t have the means to repatriate the bodies of their loved ones’
Hassan Ammari spends a lot of his time identifying the deceased, informing their families and organising burials. He’s president of an association called Help for Migrants in Vulnerable Situations in Oujda, a town in northeastern Morocco, not far from the border with Algeria.
For the past five years, he has been working to restore dignity to these people, many of whom have died in obscurity.
A number of people report deaths to our organisation, ranging from the Moroccan gendarmes to local residents to activists. Most of the people we hear about have died from exhaustion or meningitis. Sometimes the bodies show signs of violence.
As soon as we get word of a death, we organise meetings with the migrant communities that we know – we have contacts in the Malian, Congolese, Sudanese and Nigerian communities, to name a few. We ask if they know the person and can share images of them.
When we identify the person, then we contact the person’s family. We ask if they would like to repatriate their loved one or, if not, we ask them to write up permission for our organisation to organise a burial. Most of the families don’t have the means to repatriate the bodies of their loved ones, so they ask us to bury them on-site.
Two Sudanese nationals found dead
On Saturday, August 13, the organisation held a burial for a 27-year-old Sudanese man. He was found dead on June 19 in the Jerada region, about 50 kilometres south of Oujda, near the Algerian border.
His name was Khamis Abdourahman Issa. His body was found next to the body of another man, probably also from Sudan, though we haven’t yet been able to establish his identity.
According to the autopsy, Khamis died of a heart attack. We were able to speak to his brother, who gave us permission to organise a burial.
Khamis Abdourahman Issa’s body was transported to a mosque in Oujda, where a prayer was recited in his memory. Our Observer shared this video with us on Saturday, August 13.
We organise a local collection in order to pay for the burials. A Muslim burial costs between 150 to 250 euros, while a Christian’s burial costs 350 to 450 euros. When Christians are buried, you need to buy a coffin, which isn’t the case for Muslims, who are placed directly into the ground.
We work with very limited funds, essentially just small donations from locals. We haven’t accepted any money from the government or NGOs because we want to maintain our independence.
This is a funeral procession held for Khamis Abdourahman Issa. A group of migrants were in attendance. Our Observer sent us this video on Saturday, August 13.
‘We have never buried a migrant under the letter X’
It’s important to us to tell the families of the deceased about each step of the burial. We livestream videos on Facebook so that they can follow the proceedings.
We think it is extremely important to identify the people before burying them. Our organisation has never buried a migrant under the letter X because we believe that the person is a human being who deserves to be buried under their real name. We make sure that the migrants who die have the same burial as any Moroccan.
However, a number of migrants haven’t yet been identified, despite the activists’ best efforts. In general, after about four or five months, a tribunal will decide to bury them under an X to liberate space in the morgue. But before they are buried, the authorities take a DNA sample, which they keep in a data bank.
Over the past five years, we’ve managed to identify and bury 49 people. Since the beginning of Covid-19, we’ve only buried 11 people. During lockdown, we weren’t able to do as much because of the health restrictions. There are currently nine bodies in the Oujda morgue that we hope to identify.
Our Observer says that there are no statistics documenting the number of migrants who have died in Morocco.
On June 24, at least 23 people died when authorities cracked down on migrants who were making an attempt to get into the Spanish enclave of Melilla in northeastern Morocco. That represents the worst death toll for any single day in 2022.
Since 2014, more than 4,000 deaths have been recorded each year along the world’s migration routes, according to the Migration Data Portal. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has recorded more than 11,000 dead or missing migrants in Africa since 2014.