Nonprofit Has Tracked 33,000 Lives Lost In 24 Years Of Attempts To Reach E.U.

Nov 14, 2017
Originally published on November 14, 2017 11:31 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel last week printed a list that was 48 pages long, a list of names, ages, nationalities of more than 33,000 people who have died trying to reach Europe. The Dutch group UNITED for Intercultural Action has worked with nonprofits across Europe to compile this list. Geert Ates is its director. He started the list more than two decades ago at first to call attention to people who died trying to cross a river from Poland into Germany.

GEERT ATES: The people tried to swim the border river of Poland to Germany, and they got killed in this attempt. And both sides - the border guards didn't want to have the dead bodies, so they were pushing with sticks on the dead bodies so that they float away to the Baltic Sea. And this is - in our opinion, was rather scandalous, but nobody paid attention because it was once a week maybe a little message in a small newspaper locally that a dead body was found.

MCEVERS: Wow.

ATES: And we started to notice because we were networking and working Europe-wide - that this happened much more than we realized. And that's how it started.

MCEVERS: And how are you able to verify people's identities?

ATES: Identities is difficult. For a large part on this list, the people have no name. So we call it in Latin nomen nescio, N.N., because even in wars, governments try to bury the deaths with a name.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

ATES: And most refugees are just buried without any name.

MCEVERS: Like, sometimes on the list, the person's name will just be listed as Veronique from Kongo.

ATES: Yeah. Of course we never spoke to her. That is the news we got from the network. And we always try to have two or three different sources. So everything that's insecure, we don't publish.

MCEVERS: How accurate do you think that is? Do you think there are many more that you have not been able to document, especially now in this new wave of people trying to reach Europe?

ATES: My estimate working in this field for quite a while is that it's at least two, three times higher. I think now we probably find more of the deaths than in the past. In the past, it was little articles, and nobody was interested. And now everything that is happening is booming in the media. But of course you never know what kind of routings people take and disappear somewhere in the mountains, for example.

MCEVERS: I understand that families contact you now hoping to get information about their missing relatives. How does that work?

ATES: Yeah. One of the reasons for us to keep this list is also kind of a grave, a memorial. And that also has a consequence that we sometimes get a phone call from Arica. People ask us, hey, do you know where my brother is? And honestly, we never know because I think there's many people in Africa that disappeared.

MCEVERS: Right. You know, over the years, of course the list has grown. It started at a thousand, then 10,000. Now, again, it's 33,000 people. What do you want policymakers and people in Europe to think when they see this list? What do you want them to do?

ATES: In Europe where we have said after the '40s, that it should never again happen that people die as refugees, it's happening again. And that's our main campaign target - to make known what is happening and to try to get political parties to create a vision on migration and Europe and its surroundings.

MCEVERS: And that vision, though - I mean, is that completely open doors?

ATES: Yeah. It's - that's a very difficult question. But open doors - no, I don't think that is an issue. But at the moment in Europe, we don't have any immigration policy. There's not a system like green cards like in America. But if we want to change it, we have to work on a more peaceful world around us, stop the war in Syria, make sure that Africa develops economically 'cause of course you cannot have everybody living together in one small town. And we have to distribute resources better.

MCEVERS: Geert Ates, thank you so much.

ATES: Thank you.

MCEVERS: Geert Ates is director and co-founder of the Dutch group UNITED for Intercultural Action, which keeps a running list of people who have died trying to get to Europe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.