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Moroccan activists work to identify deceased migrants and give them proper burials

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Victims of exhaustion, violence or disease, many migrants die every year on their journey to Europe. In Morocco, a country on a common route taken by undocumented migrants to reach Spain, a volunteer organization is working to identify those who have died along the way and give them a dignified burial.

Many people from sub-Saharan Africa trying to reach Europe cross the Moroccan-Algerian border. Bodies are often discovered along the border, which stretches for 500 kilometers from Saïda, in northern Morocco, to the southern city of Figuig.

‘Most families don’t have the resources to repatriate the bodies of their loved ones’

Hassan Ammari spends much of his time identifying the deceased, informing their families and organizing funerals. He chairs an association called Aid for Migrants in Vulnerable Situations in Oujda, a city in northeastern Morocco, not far from the border with Algeria.

For the past five years he has worked to restore the dignity of these people, many of whom have died in obscurity.

A number of people report deaths to our organization, ranging from the Moroccan gendarmes to local residents to activists. Most of the people we hear about have died of exhaustion or meningitis. Sometimes the bodies show signs of violence.

As soon as we receive word of a death, we organize meetings with the migrant communities 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 pictures of them.

When we identify the person, we contact the person’s family. We ask if they want to repatriate their loved one or, if not, we ask them to write permission for our organization to organize a funeral. Most families don’t have the resources to repatriate the bodies of their loved ones, so they ask us to bury them on the spot.

Two Sudanese citizens found dead

On Saturday, August 13, the organization held a funeral for a 27-year-old Sudanese man. He was found dead on June 19 in the Jerada region, about 50 kilometers 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, although we have not 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 organize a funeral.

The body of Khamis Abdourahman Issa was transported to a mosque in Oujda, where a prayer was said in his memory. Our Observer shared this video with us on Saturday, August 13.

We organize a local collection to pay for the funerals. A Muslim funeral costs between 150 and 250 euros, while a Christian funeral costs 350 to 450 euros. If Christians are buried, you have to buy a coffin, which is not the case for Muslims, which are placed directly in the ground.

We work with very limited funds, essentially only small donations from the local population. We have not taken 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 was present. Our observer sent us this video on Saturday, August 13.

‘We have never buried a migrant under the letter X’

It is important for us to tell the families of the deceased about every step of the funeral. We livestream videos on facebook so that they can follow the procedure.

We find it extremely important to identify the people before they are buried. Our organization has never buried a migrant under the letter X because we believe the person is a human who deserves to be buried under their real name. We make sure that the migrants who die have the same burial as every Moroccan.

However, a number of migrants have not yet been identified, despite the efforts of the activists. Generally, after about four or five months, a court will decide to bury them under an X to free up space in the morgue. But before they are buried, the authorities take a DNA sample, which they keep in a database.

In the past five years we have managed to identify and bury 49 people. Since the onset of Covid-19, we have buried only 11 people. During the lockdown we couldn’t do much because of the health restrictions. There are currently nine bodies in the Oujda morgue that we hope to identify.

Our observer says there are no statistics on the number of migrants killed in Morocco.

At least 23 people were killed on June 24 when authorities cracked down on migrants attempting to enter the Spanish enclave of Melilla in northeastern Morocco. That’s the worst single day death toll in 2022.

Since 2014 more than 4,000 deaths are recorded every year along the migration routes of the world, according to the Migration Data Portal. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has registered more than 11,000 dead or missing migrants in Africa since 2014.

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