Unknown, Unwanted & Forgotten: Failed #OSINT Forensics on EU’s Borders

Migrants who travel and die en route to Europe deserve identification. Some is owed to the unwillingness or lack of resources to use novel forensic methods, including #OSINT. Why so many remain unknown.

15 min readDec 10, 2023
A team of reporters visited many different cemeteries on Europe’s borders, with more than a thousand unmarked graves of migrants. At least, 2,162 unidentified deceased migrants died between 2014 and 2023

For more than 2,000 migrants in the past 10 years, all help came too late. Not only did they tragically die. They also end up as John Does, unknown cases. Their graves remain unmarked. EU authorities failed them and their relatives. Without identification, they are just forgotten souls. It suits the books of EU’s border states. At fault is their lack of political will. It’s their duty to confirm names, whether it's a body of migrant or not. How open-source intelligence and data journalism helped to unearth the morbid reality on Europe’s borders.

An Iraqi migrant goes suddenly missing. From Iraq, Mohammed Sabah travelled to the Polish-Belarusian border. Suddenly, at the end of 2021, contact with his uncle — who lives in the UK — breaks off. This year, the uncle visited the third time the police station in Poland. He seeks answers. The information, he received, seems insufficient or faulty. He won't stop. Won't give up until he has certainty of the fate of his beloved relative.

His mind won’t rest until he knows what happened and there is a feeling of guilt: “I feel I am guilty, personally. I got a British passport, I could have come. I ask myself why (not). Seven months, I asked myself why didn't I come", his uncle says in a video interview.

When family members of migrants who embark on the parlous journey to Europe, try to find their missing loved ones, they may suffer dearly without consolation. There is no resolution. No end a feeling of hope. And no start of the grieving process — a feeling researchers call “ambiguous loss

It's a harrowing feeling, like a trauma. Victims can't grief. They may not stop looking for answers and keep searching for their missing relatives. They might even put up with a high expenses, only to keep searching. It’s a feeling of not knowing whether their loved ones died. The feeling defies emotional comprehension, writes Pauline Boss, an expert of interdisciplinary study of family stress who initially developed the theory of ambiguous loss.

It is torturing those who are left behind, often in poor countries where migrants started out, where smugglers sold their relatives expensive packed trips to a better life. Thousands and thousands of members of families have no idea what happened to their loved ones and may have fallen victim to the feeling of ambiguous loss. Relatives and friends, so numbers by the Red Cross, asked for more than 25,000 people, all gone missing en route to Europe since 2014.

OSINT, especially SOCINT in migrant missing investigations, is often used in finding out who travelled with the deceased, and if they could be contacted to confirm identities and help to restore family links.

Sadly, a sufficient forensic approach by EU border states is all too rare — due to lack of political will and resources. A lack of identification of victims perpetrates the collective pain, that Pauline Boss describes in her scientific literature.

Statistically, the chance for a dead migrant, whose body was recovered, to be identified is gravely low. Just over every second, according to figures over the past decade for key EU member border states, proved to be successfully identified. In comparison, the homicide solution rate for Germany for 2022 was 92 percent.

Recovered bodies of deceased migrants in four member states

In Italy and Spain, authorities’ ability over time decreased (2014–2019 vs 2020–2021) to identify migrant victims who die en route to Europe (Statistics by the International Committee of the Red Cross)

On average (total identification rate of 56.7%), it's hardly better than flipping a coin. The statistics stand not only in stark contracts to national homicide solution rates.

It is also unfit to the notion by the EU that all recovered bodies, migrants or not, must be treated equally, and as such identified. Member states have a duty to respect the dead and investigate. But that’s often not what happens. And to blame is the member state's own implement of EU law.

A 2021 resolution by the EU Parliament passed and acknowledges the right of those who die on migration routes to be identified. What looks good on paper, hardly translated into reality. There the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović took note, too. EU countries would keep failing in their obligations to identify dead migrants, in breach with human rights law.

Link to the European Parliament resolution of 19 May 2021 on human rights protection and the EU external migration policy

This is why journalists teamed up to unearth why hundreds of bodies still dumped in unmarked graves. Among the team of reporters, there was also one OSINT journalist.

The investigation questioned the process of how European authorities, border guards, state prosecutors and police usually handle dead migrant cases. Where do they fail to identify victims? Why are so few relatives contacted?

Cases were only considered in the context of migration, excluding victims of war and conflict regions. An inept data collection and interviews with dozens of experts contributed to answering the question of how bad the situation has become and who is accountable.

The “funnel”: from missing migrant stats to the few victims identified

Data-driven research shows how only a tiny fraction of those migrants gone missing are being identified…

20,000 migrants that attempted to reach Europe between 2014 and 2019 went missing (by 2023, there might be many more)

Data source: IOM

16,500 inquiries by family and friends, looking for 25,600 missing migrants under the restoring family links program were filed with ICRC since 2014.

Only roughly 13% of missing migrants are being recovered and buried by EU state authorities (seemingly considerably more per year than the number in the years from 1990 and 2013)

Of those recovered in Italy, Spain, Malta and Greece, at least 57% (or 1,392) remain unidentified between 2014 and 2021.

But journalists now found that there are many more: some 2,162 unidentified dead migrants, across Italy, Spain, Malta and northern Greece, France and Poland (2014–2023).

2,162 unknown deceased migrants

Less than 300 successful matches for missing migrants (with relatives) by efforts under the Red Cross restoring family links program

Few of the at least 20,000 receive certainty

Journalists also teamed up to be able to physically visit unmarked grave locations and cemeteries near EU borders. There, where the unknown and often forgotten victims were buried, are often decorated with not much more than a bit of rubble or an unmarked withered wooden cross.

Cemeteries in several countries, with more than 550 unmarked migrant graves, added since 2014, were visited. It total than 1,000 were analyzed and fact-checked.

Unmarked grave sites across Europe

Cemeteries on EU borders analyzed or visited for unmarked graves added since 2014

The longer a body remains in the water, the harder it is to identify, so one source. The longer a body remains in the forest, the higher the chance that wild animals get to it first. another source.

For the identification, time seems of the essence for how successful willing authorities are. It's where, across countries, often the problems increase. Sometimes the only what’s left to do, is to take DNA samples. But how to compare it, if there is nothing to compare it with to?

Issues in the process

Research analyzed and spotted problems in many corners of EU border regions. High numbers of migrants increased the on authorities. In a migrants' “crisis”, few have the time to care for the dead, especially if there are already few who care for the living.

There, the problem is often systematic: a lack of political will. Too few resources are being made available to investigate John Doe cases at length. ICRC and other NGO organizations stated their findings in public reports. Contrasting them, patters emerge. Some countries have similar issues. But there are also country-specific caveats.

The process stretches from the first discovered of a migrant body to the burial or repatriation. The overarching issues is the collection and administration of a international missing migrants' database. It is also the legal system that prevents collecting info such as DNA or acknowledging those who travelled with the migrants. And often information across embassies or aid- or activist organizations is not reliably shared.

Denying grieving relatives from abroad, the source countries, to attend funerals in the EU, is the last straw.

Research BH

Europe has a number of deadly migrant routes. And thanks to the detestable practice of pushbacks and Poland’s latest migration wave, which really kicked off in late 2021, a new deadly route was added.

Especially lethal: a narrow corridor right on the polish-Belarusian border, which frequently turns into a death trap after migrants being push forth and back by polish and Belarusian border forces. Owed to pushbacks from both sides, a tall fence, a dangerous forest, 00ds of people went missing

Another problem: When migrants are being discovered by border guards alive, they often don't register them. Registering them, means taking their identities. There is then a chance that they then demand apply for asylum.

There are reported instances of tragic pushbacks and wasted attempts for an emergency response by the authorities. Sometimes migrants’ means of communication with relatives (phones) are removed or being destroyed, or other alleged breaches of human rights take place. All this not only adds to the death toll — currently more than 50. But it also adds to the figure of unidentifiable deceased migrants.

Italy and Malta

Examples of novel forensic methods, especially with social media analysis (so-called SOCMINT), have allowed to speed up investigations to identify dead migrants. In one case, there was a shipwreck in Italy in 2014. Investigators in Syracuse could single-handedly identify most of the victims of a shipwreck disaster, partly thanks to checking friends and family members on social media platforms. For other authorities to replicate this kind of work, they would need to invest in teaching people #OSINT and order them to work on such cases.

Research BH

Both, in Italy and Spain, decreased the rate of how many recovered migrant victims could be successfully identified. There was the Covid pandemic, possibly an important driver (however, it does not explain why other countries, such as Greece or Malta, could then hold on or even improve their ability to identify).

Research BH

A dangerous forest and hiding migrants — A toxic combination

The main challenge on the Poland-Belarus border present the area along the border: a dense, age-old forests, often riddled with swamps, rivers and wild animals. Especially tricky is the region of Białowieża forest in northeastern Poland, stretching some 60km along the border. It is one of the last vestiges of the vast primeval forest that once covered the European plain.

Białowieża forest, remains a dangerous trap for migrants

“It is very easy to get lost”, says a representative of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. If you don't have cellphone reception with Google Maps, if you don't have a guide, they quickly can get lost there. Migrants might have a phone, but their batteries die and they are suddenly lost. The forest is so huge, so massive that even if people would be looking for you, and they might have your last location, they still wouldn't find you, the source says. In the midst of this dense primeval forest, people die of a lack of water or food.

They might be hiding in the forest and then die due to the low temperatures, due to exhaustion or diseases. The lack of political will to search and rescue people in distress, is not the only problem. Particularly because migrants have to hide, because they know when they might be “caught”, and at once, being pushed back. All that perpetuates the risk for migrants’ lives while travelling the harrowing forest, so the source.

The Journey of a young man from Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan

With the money and help of his father, the young Mohammed Sabah bought a trip to Minsk. The company who allegedly sold the trip was called ByeBye. The firm still maintains a profile online and on Google Maps.

In one of the images, the Google Chainman Serwan H. holds of up a passport and ByeBye leaflets in front of the UK Parliament in London. At least for Mohammed Sabah, it was persuasive. The price tags of such smuggler deals are high, as other reporting reveals. It can cost from an average of a few thousands to tens of thousands that traffickers demand.

A plane brought Sabah first from Erbil Airport to Damascus International Airport. Then to Minsk. There, he and others were brought close to the border — self-proclaimed guides accompanied them. Sabah drives some 350km to a place near the small border town, Brest. From there, they travel another hundred of km north. It is where in November 2021 an unprecedented situation developed.

Source: SZ Reporting

Several thousand people crowded along the border fence with Poland. Clashes erupt. It is winter and freezing cold. Families and children, many of them from Iraq, are sleeping on camping mats and in tents at the edge of the forest.

Geolocated to this location, according to image comparison

They sit around the campfire and wait. Mohammed Sabah, new friend and companion, hopes Poland might open the border — just like in 2015. But nothing happens.

Drafting the timeline after last contact with the young man in early December 2021

Where is Mohammed Sabah now? Few things are certain. Mohammed Sabah was detained by polish police near Sokółka (source), a small village some 12km off the border. From there, he is said to have been transported back to the border, a procedure that is generally known as “pushback”. They happen frequently. A few thousands were recorded by activist organizations. Mohammed Sabah ends up not far from Kuznica. Then, all connection between father and son break down. His uncle receives no messages since December 2nd, 2021.

A disturbing video

It’s the 6. October 2022: A video appears on the internet. Nearly one year since all contact broke off with Mohammed’s father and his uncle. But then Mohammed Sabah’s relatives watch the video of a man hanging upside down from a polish border fence. They swear they can identify Mohammed dangling upside down before falling to the ground. Pundits on the social forums call the man in the recording the bat of Podlasie, a derogatory framing that quickly goes viral. Both the hate and the reaction to the hatful video raise quickly attention across polish online users.

The only 17 seconds long clip allegedly first appeared on a local website and a post on Facebook profile — neither however is available any longer (a web archive analysis shows).

A social shit storm developed after the activists and former journalist Piotr Czaban from the group POPH posted his reaction online. He said that POPH also notified the prosecutor’s office.

Potentially hundreds of thousands of polish readers and social media users might have seen the video. Czaban’s X post alone received hundreds of comments.

link Piotr Czaban

The two men can be heard ridiculing the man hanging upside down from razor wire mounted fence. The two men, allegedly border guards, are laughing. The recording suggests them saying: “Fuck… no. He is Awesome. Hahaha”.

According to the website, Wiadomosci, the people in the video are not just border guards. They are soldiers. SG Anna Michalska, press spokesman for the Border Guard Headquarters and loud critic of the documentary “the green border” confirmed to reporters that “soldiers” were present at the scene when asked for clarification.

Research: BH

Online forensic work on the video finds a possible match for border guard A, a man in an image with the same jacket. The Getty image post was posted on the 19 of August 2021, but at a different part of the border

Tools used: Overpass Turbo Open Street Maps, Google Earth Pro

The video also raises the attention by the Commissioner for Human Rights in Poland. He decided to investigate further, he said. After the video appeared online, Rzecznik Praw Obywatelskich, says he immediately took matters in his own hands and asked around for the fate of Mohammed Sabah. Right after it was posted, the commissioner asked Polish border guards about information on the findings and what had been steps taken after the man in the video was found.

He was informed the guards allegedly did not register his identity. Not taking someone's identity is one of the big allegations that border guards in Poland face. According to an interview with members of a polish human rights organization, it makes it harder to find out who died. Noting down the identity of migrants found alive in the border zone it not only necessary to establish family links but also legally binding, the source says.

Source: Twitter X

Marta Górczyńska, head of the migration department at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights based in Warszawa said that informing relatives about the location where a relative was arrested is a basic fundamental human right that should be always respected. But in Poland that right is not safe.

Often it is difficult to establish a family connection because phones of migrants were confiscated, she says. The Polish border guards want to avoid that photo and video footage of pushback operations or their ill-treatment leaks to the press or is posed on the internet. If migrants die as a consequence of being sent back into the dangerous forest behind the border fence, to identify bodies without phones or ID papers, is much harder.

Cemeteries with unmarked migrant graves in Poland — migrants were buried in graves with the indication N.N. on it (on Polish side) — NN, is an abbreviation of the Latin nomen nescio, literally means, “I do not know the name”.
The cemeteries in which unknown migrants were buried are all only distanced a few kilometers off the border. They are often Muslim cemeteries, whereby the authorities can only assume the faith of the victims.

The experience the Commissioner for Human Rights in Poland made, that border guards fail to register and take the ID of migrants, worries also Górczyńska. A fundamental concern is that “migrants are not being registered and not granted a lawyer, before being pushed back”, she explains.

“A state that is involved in pushbacks, they don't want to investigate deaths and people gone missing at the border. Here we cannot expect the state to provide any effective mechanism of looking for the missing or unidentified”. The whole burden lies on the shoulder of the civil society, she says.

How this affects the painstaking work of identifying dead migrants on the Polish side, shows an analysis of data on recovered migrant bodies. A significant share of identifications were not done by the state. But by the team of civil society group Podlasie Volunteer Humanitarian Emergency (POPH).

Another concern is missing legal aid. Many of the migrants picked up are not granted access to an interpreter to apply for asylum. An illegal act under Polish law, Górczyńska says. So is not to permit migrants to contact relatives: “to allow those apprehended to call family members, is the obligation of Polish law”, she adds.

Górczyńska also says the authorities must act more quickly to rescue migrants in distress. When they go out, they only find people dead, she says. That’s too late.

Currently, at least around 300 people are missing in den border region and hundreds of families would have contacted the team of Górczyńska. “These are families saying I just lost contact with my son or my brother or my sister who went to the border and I don’t know what happened to them”, she says. “If they are lucky, they are only detained in a migrant detention center”, she adds.

If they find migrants, and they are alive, the activists stay with them. If among them is a lawyer, they will become their council. This will guarantee that their names are being registered, and they can apply for asylum.

“We are trying to fill in for the state. But we have very little to none capacity to do more”, she adds. “We can try to help those families, we can try to help those people who contact us and provide medical and humanitarian assistance. But these are only small things that we can do”

You can read here all the publications. All credits are listed in the articles

SZ: https://www.sueddeutsche.de/projekte/artikel/politik/europa-migration-irak-e277704/

Unbiasthenews: https://unbiasthenews.org/border-graves-investigation/

The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2023/dec/08/revealed-more-than-1000-unmarked-graves-discovered-along-eu-migration-routes?CMP=share_btn_tw


Solomon: https://wearesolomon.com/el/mag/format-el/erevnes/agnoston-stoixeion-pano-apo-1000-ataftopoihtoi-tafoi-sta-evropaika-synora/

Thanks to Piotr Czaban and the countrless other sources we interviewed and who supported. For the OSINT part on the Poland-Belarus border, I advise checking Telegram channels. Some provided essention insight into the situation for migrants. One is called Immigrant_news. Migrants receive information on their travel. Often it's poor advice. One from September 2021 suggests how to hide in the no-man’s land zone between the borders, ending with the phrase “No one can save you”.

Translated from the post: “A forbidden area is a few meters between Belarus and Poland, and they are both not responsible. It is happening in a forbidden area. Please change your location, meaning you will remain inside a forbidden area, but change your location until you are able to cross to Poland or return to Belarus.
“No one can save you”




Investigative journalist with a technical edge, interested in open source investigations, satellite imgs, R, python, AI, data journalism and injustice