Tide of death: Libya struggles to cope as migrants' bodies wash ashore

Flowers float in the Mediterranean Sea in honor of migrants lost while making the perilous journey to Europe.

Story highlights

  • Hundreds of bodies of asylum seekers and migrants hoping for a new life in Europe have washed up on Libya's shores
  • Volunteers from the Libyan Red Crescent Society patrol the country's western beaches in search of remains
  • "It is psychologically difficult for them," says Mohammed Misrati, spokesman for the Libyan Red Crescent Society

(CNN)They set out full of hope, clutching a few cherished belongings, or the hand of a loved one as they stepped onto the overcrowded, barely seaworthy boats they thought would take them to new lives in Europe.

But within hours, their journeys across the Mediterranean ended in tragedy. Now days, weeks, or even months later, their bodies are washing up on the beaches of Libya.
    And with no stable, functioning government to take control of the situation, ordinary Libyans are struggling to cope with the tide of human remains.
    Mohammed Misrati, spokesman for the Libyan Red Crescent Society in Tripoli, says most of the migrants' bodies wash up along a stretch of Libya's western coast, in Zuwara, Khoms and Sabrata -- where many of their journeys began.
    "We collected 40 bodies in just one operation in Zuwara," explains Misrati, adding that while he doesn't have exact numbers, he believes the problem is "much worse" this year.
    "It's a problem we've faced for a long time but it's never been this bad," he says. "In previous years it used to be in the dozens, now it's in the hundreds."
    Libyan Red Crescent volunteers recover the body of a migrant who drowned while trying to reach Europe.
    According to the International Organization for Migration, the number of refugees and migrants who have died while trying to cross the Mediterranean this year has already passed 2,000; as of mid-August some 264,500 had arrived successfully in Europe.
    With no officials or authorities stepping in to deal with the situation, Misrati says volunteers from the Libyan Red Crescent have been left to cope alone, patrolling the region's beaches in search of remains.
    "The corpses wash up on shore and our volunteers are having to move the bodies and manage the remains of the dead," he said.
    The LRCS relies on 7,000 volunteers across the country; they come from diverse backgrounds and have varying levels of expertise, but many are not trained to deal with human remains.
    "It is psychologically difficult for them," says Misrati. "What is especially difficult is the sight of the corpses, seeing human remains reduced to meat and bones, often without any way to trace their origin or families."
    The bodies are often found with nothing to identify them, meaning they have to be buried in anonymous graves.
    After collecting the bodies, LRCS's volunteers take them to local hospitals, where the authorities take charge of the remains and attempt to identify them, where possible, and contact the appropriate embassy or community.
    The local authorities also bear responsibility for burying the dead, in graveyards in Tripoli for Muslims, non-Muslims, and the unidentified.
    The International Committee of the Red Cross is helping its Libyan team train and equip the volunteers.
    Ammar Ammar, spokesman for the ICRC in North Africa and the Middle East, says it has instructed more than 80 volunteers this month in the proper handling of human remains, as well as providing body bags and personal protection kits.
    "Due to the prevailing security situation and as no system is set in place for handling dead bodies, the LRCS conduct these activities as an auxiliary to the authorities," Ammar said.
    "Their role is limited to the collection and transfer of dead bodies to the competent authorities," he said.
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    Aside from the challenges of dealing with bodies that wash up in Libya, the LRCS helps worried families try to trace missing migrants, and offers assistance to those lucky enough to be rescued at sea.
    "The ones who survive are taken to detention centers," explains Misrati, "The Red Crescent visits them [there] to see their conditions, to offer some small financial assistance for a dignified life."
    Even before the recent spike in refugee and migrant-related responsibilities, Misrati says his organization already had its hands full.
    "We have other roles, helping the hospitals, their needs, offering psychological support. We're trying to find help for more than 550,000 Libyans who are internally displaced."
    Without that help, many more of those displaced people may decide they have no other option but to take their chances in one of those overcrowded boats.