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An obscure island grave: fate of deadly EU migration route’s youngest victim

<span>Photograph: Gerson Diaz/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Gerson Diaz/The Guardian

Stretching less than a metre in length and covered in the ochre-coloured soil that dots the Canary island of Lanzarote, large stones encircle the tiny mound. There is no tombstone or plaque; nothing official to signal that this is the final resting site of the infant believed to be the youngest victim of one of the world’s deadliest migration routes.

Instead, two bouquets of plastic daisies adorn the grave, along with a granite bowl engraved with his name, Alhassane Bangoura, hinting at the impact his story had on many across the island.

His mother, originally from Guinea, was among three pregnant women who joined 40 others in an inflatable raft that left Morocco in early January 2020. After running out of fuel, the flimsy raft was left to the mercy of Atlantic currents for three days.

“They were driven by desperation,” said Mamadou Sy, a municipal councillor for the Socialist party in Lanzarote. “Nobody would get into one of these vessels if they had even a little bit of hope in their own country. Nobody would do it.”

So far this year, a record 35,410 migrants and refugees have arrived on the shores of the Canary Islands – a 135% increase over last year. More than 11,000 of them landed at the tiny island of El Hierro, home to just 9,000 people.

The surge in those risking the perilous route has transformed the archipelago into a microcosm of the wider strain playing out across the EU as authorities struggle to deal with the bodies of those that die on their way. A Guardian investigation in collaboration with a consortium of reporters has found that refugees and migrants are being buried in unmarked graves across the EU at a scale that is unprecedented outside of war.

About the investigation

The Guardian teamed up with Süddeutsche Zeitung and eight reporters from the Border Graves Investigation who received funding from Investigative Journalism for Europe and Journalismfund Europe.

We worked with researchers at the International Committee of the Red Cross who shared exclusively their most up-to-date findings on migrant and refugee deaths registered in Spain, Malta, Greece and Italy between 2014 and 2021.

Other partners included Marijana Hameršak of the European Irregularized Migration Regime at the Periphery of the EU (ERIM) project in Croatia, Grupa Granica and Podlaskie Humanitarian Emergency Service (POPH) in Poland and Sienos Grupė in Lithuania. The journalist Maël Galisson provided data for France.

Reporters and researchers also checked death registers, interviewed prosecutors and spoke to local authorities and morgue directors, as well as visiting two dozen cemeteries to track the number of unidentified migrants and refugees who have died trying to cross into the EU in the past decade and find their graves.

In September, the mayor of Mogán, a municipality on the island of Gran Canaria, gave voice to the tensions that have at times surfaced as officials across the EU confront this issue, announcing she would no longer use her budget to cover the cost of burying refugees and migrants who are found along the shores that buttress the municipality.

“When they die on the high seas, it is the responsibility of the state,” Onalia Bueno told reporters, in rejection of a Spanish law that requires municipalities to foot the bills for people who die within their jurisdiction and who are either unidentified or whose families cannot cover the costs.

At the Teguise municipal cemetery on the island of Lanzarote, more than 25 unmarked graves sit among a plot containing about 60 graves in total. It was here that baby Alhassane was buried. His mother had delivered him as the rickety vessel pitched against the fierce Atlantic swells; those onboard later told media they never heard the baby cry.

His body was cold when the vessel was rescued, an emergency services spokesperson said. He was taken to the nearest hospital but was declared dead on arrival. His body was taken to judicial authorities as is the standard practice in Spain for migrants and refugees who perish at sea or on arrival.

Alhassane’s mother, who was unconscious when she was rescued, was later sent to Gran Canaria, about 200km (125 miles) away, where an NGO had agreed to take her into its care. But the Spanish judicial system had yet to release her son’s body – a process that can take up to eight months in Lanzarote.

The funeral took place on 25 January. “She wasn’t able to attend the funeral,” said Laetitia Marthe, who was among those who unsuccessfully battled for Alhassane’s mother to be allowed to attend. “Basically they’re treated like numbers.”

Instead, Marthe was among the handful of people who attended the funeral in her name.

Judicial officials had liaised with the mother to check the baby’s name, said Eugenio Robayna Díaz, the municipal councillor responsible for cemeteries in the city of Teguise. But he did not know why the name had not made it on to the grave.

Julie Campagne, an anthropologist based in Lanzarote, called for the baby’s grave to be marked with a plaque. “We’re witnessing the process of forgetting in real time. And this loss of memory comes with a shirking of our responsibility for what is happening.”

Generally speaking, all over the world, there is always a small fraction of people who die and are never identified, she added. “But that is not what is happening here. This is happening for specific reasons. This is happening because of the policy decisions of our governments.”

While Alhassane’s mother was not able to attend the funeral, what did eventually make it to his gravesite was a smooth stone, painted by her in yellow and red and brought there by those travelling from Gran Canaria shortly after the burial. Written on the stone was a message for her son.

More than three years of rain has washed away much of what was there but Marthe copied down the message, hoping to one day add it to a formal marker of the site. “I will miss you a lot my baby,” it reads. “I love you.”

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