Exhumation and repartriation

In the context of border deaths exhumation is usually followed by repatriation of corpses initiated most often by the families of the deceased. Based on the field research carried out on the Greek island of Lesbos, Iosif Kovras and Simon Robins (2017) describe the repatriation of the corpse as an extremely complicated, expensive and therefore rare procedure, despite its obvious importance to the families. One of the migrants who had participated in the burial of the
victims of one of the biggest shipwrecks in December 2012 remarked to the following: “most frequently the family does not have the money to bring them [bodies] back as the money is usually spent to pay the smugglers. Only the rich get back, the poor stay here.’   “Only the rich get back, the poor stay here“ (Kovras and Robins 2016: 166). According to the same authors: “In the face of the failure of the authorities to identify bodies, even in the unlikely event that they are informed by a survivor, the families of the dead cannot afford the exorbitant cost of identification and repatriation
of remains. Thus, while poor (living) migrants experience the greatest barriers to entering the EU, it is also these poorest families which face the most difficulty with exiting the EU when their migrant relatives are dead. As a result, their bodies are destined to stay in common graves. The growing incidence of shipwrecks and deaths along the Aegean coast has generated new categories and divisions even among dead migrants, further institutionalizing power relations. As exploitation often thrives in contexts of human grief and vague legal procedures, it is hardly surprising that the identification and repatriation of the bodies has become subject to exploitation by smugglers, whose networks continue to thrive in the aftermath of a shipwreck. Smugglers are usually the first to know about a shipwreck and to inform the families of those affected, who then enlist the smugglers’ help to identify and return the body (Interview 4). This was confirmed by an interview with migrants who were actively engaged in one of the burials on Lesbos. Despite its obvious importance to the families, the repatriation of the corpse is an extremely complicated and expensive procedure. As
a consequence, only a handful of families have managed to get bodies back. A local journalist evocatively referred to this as the ‘contraband of human souls’. Migrants currently residing in Lesbos revealed that they were aware of only two families
which had managed to repatriate their dead relatives, and that they were able to do so only because one of the victims was a relative of an Afghan minister who mobilised the Afghan embassy in Athens to intervene with the Greek bureaucracy. Of the 22 bodies from the shipwreck concerned, presumably all from Afghanistan, the Afghan embassy intervened in only two cases” (Kovras and Robins 2016: 166).

Writing about the postmortem itinerary of Maricela who died in the Sonoran Desert in the attempt to migrate to the United States of America, Jason De León points to different processes that also have parallels in European or at least Croatian context: “As her decomposing body was loaded onto a plane in New York City, Maricela, like many dead border crossers, transformed from being an anonymous subject unrecognized by the state to a documented Ecuadoran citizen accorded rights and privileges by both her native country and the one that sought to exclude her. She entered the desert hybrid collectif as just another “body” to be deterred and apprehended by Border Patrol. Upon death and discovery she was reanimated as a person and a citizen to be repatriated swiftly. For those on the economic margins of Latin America, it is often only in death that they are claimed by governments” (De León 2015: 251-252).

Graveyard in Skakavac, Croatia. Photo by Marijana Hameršak, July 2020.

Four out of eleven deceased buried in Skakavac cemetery in 2019 and 2020 were repatriated in 2020. Data confirmed by Zelenilo d.o.o., Karlovac.


De León, Jason. 2015. The Land of Open Graves. Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Oakland: University of California Press.

Kovras, Iosif and Simon Robins. 2017. “Missing Migrants. Deaths at Sea and Unidentified Bodies on Lesbos”. In Migrating borders and moving times: Temporality and the crossing of borders in Europe. Hastings Donnan, Madelaine Hurd, Carolin Leutloff-Grandits, eds. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 157-175.



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