Humanitarian migrant mission wins top THE Award

Liverpool John Moores University’s ‘mission’ to help identify migrants who die crossing the seas to Europe has won the Times Higher Education Research Project of the Year.

Judges praised the project’s humanity, imagination and ingenuity when awarding LJMU this year’s prize for research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

Research lead Professor Caroline Wilkinson dedicated the award to “all the people who are supporting and assisting the families of missing migrants.”

More than 26,000 people have died attempting to reach Europe since 2014, most never to have their bodies returned to their families, and according to the International Organization for Migration, as little as 22 per cent of deceased migrants will ever be positively identified, with legal, socio-economic and situational obstacles preventing the use of accepted methods of identification such as DNA, fingerprints or dental records.  

Face Lab, an interdisciplinary research group at Liverpool John Moores University led by Professor Wilkinson, began studying this social injustice in 2020. Starting their work in the Canary Islands, the researchers organised an online symposium on migrant disaster victim identification, and collaborated with the University of Milan and Texas State University to evaluate craniofacial techniques for the post-mortem identification of faces.  

Later, Face Lab researchers applied these techniques to the identification of deceased migrants in Greece, working with the University of Thrace and the Platform for Transnational Forensic Assistance. Comparing post-mortem craniofacial data with images from social media and missing persons sites, they helped identify some disaster victims.  

"This project tackles a topical emergency: refugees dying unidentified, and the sadness of families left bereaved without certainty," the Times Higher judges said. They were shocked by the scale of the identification crisis, and applauded the “ingenuity” of the Face Lab researchers.  

“Their humanitarian ambitions are equalled by research imagination and organisational logistics,” the judges concluded.  

-Face Lab is a research group dedicated to human identification and is part of LJMU’s Forensic Research Institute (FORRI).   

-More on the 2023 Times Higher Education Awards.


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