refugee crisis

What's Left of the Migrants Who Died Trying to Cross from Turkey to Greece

Professor Pavlos Pavlidis has identified 200 dead immigrants in the past 17 years.

by Kostas Koukoumakas, Photos: Alexandros Avramidis
26 June 2017, 12:02pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Greece

Pavlos Pavlidis is a Professor of Forensic Medicine at the University Hospital in Alexandroupoli, a port-city in Greece's Evros region. The region (which takes its name from the river Evros) borders Turkey to the East and so it has always been one of the principal points of entry to Europe for migrants travelling from Asia.

Over the last 17 years, Pavlidis has examined a large number of migrants who have died trying to cross the Evros river between Greece and Turkey. His job doesn't stop there though: as a coroner, he is also asked to identify the bodies of migrants hauled from the river, often with nothing more than the deceased's pair of glasses and keys to work with.

Professor Pavlos Pavlidis

"Between 2000 and 2016, a total of 350 migrants were pulled dead from the Greek side of the Evros River," Professor Pavlidis told me. "Unfortunately, we have no official data from the Turkish side, but I estimate that just as many have been found there. On the whole, I think that since 2000, at least as many as 1,000 people have died in the Evros."

Of the 350 deaths, around 200 people have been successfully identified. Between 2000 and 2010, the vast majority of the deceased were men – 222 compared to 18 women. The following year, after the beginning of the Syrian war, the number of women increased significantly as entire families began crossing the river. The most deadly period came between 2010 and 2011, with a total of 95 deaths in the river.

Pavlidis is often handed pieces of paper that carry barely readable phone numbers

Finding the dead is a long, difficult process. The muddy bed of the river can hold on to the remains for months. When the river gives them up, usually after a flood, the identification process can begin. "In this case, the personal belongings are the first clues towards identifying them," Pavlidis said.

Pavlidis and his team place their findings in individually numbered plastic bags. These hold a wide-range of items; such as rings, watches, a glasses, slips of paper with often indistinguishable phone numbers, passport photos and religious objects. Each of these pouches contains a story behind each person's search for safety.

Damaged passport photos and a prayer book

The personal items are the first thing Pavlidis shows relatives, when they arrive in Alexandroupoli looking for their loved ones. "Over the years, relatives of missing people from all over the world have come to the morgue," he said. "I will not forget the death of 23 people in one night in 2003, all of whom were identified."

He lowered his voice. "I will also never forget the day a boat capsized in the river and a father and his two children disappeared into the water. His family looked for months, but they were never found."

On one occasion, Professor Pavlidis had the credit card and personal documents of a Chinese man who had tried to cross the Evros. When he contacted the Chinese government, he was told that there were 13 million people with exactly the same details.

Since the Greek police department's forensic laboratories were updated in 2004, the morgue in Alexandroupoli has kept DNA samples from each body. However, obtaining samples from the victim's country of origin can be very difficult, especially considering many migrants come from war zones. "In such cases the International Red Cross can be very helpful," said Pavlidis.

The protocol provides that the unidentified remain at the hospital in Alexandroupoli for three months, before being buried in the Muslim cemetery in the village of Sidiro. In the first few years of the refugee crisis, the Evros local government covered the cost, then it was the police and the Ministry of Justice, but these days it's the Ministry of Health. Sometimes, identification is made after the burial, and the remains are exhumed and transferred to the deceased's homeland. "Each person deserves respect, because they are defenceless," Professor Pavlidis said. "Identification and burial is not only a moral obligation, but it helps bring closure for the relatives of the deceased."

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Pavlidis was unable to identify this man because his details matched 13 million others