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Activists, artists bury migrants who died trying to reach Europe in Germany

A coffin containing the remains of a female refugee stands in front of an empty seat for German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a muslim funeral at Gatow cemetery in Berlin, Germany, June 16, 2015. The body of a female refugee from Syria who had drowned in international waters in March 2015 at Europe's external borders, was brought to Berlin to be laid to rest by the project group 'The Center for Political Beauty', as a protest against the European Union’s asylum policies, mass drownings in the Mediterranean and inhuman burial practices, a spokesman of the project group said.

Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Several days ago, odd posters began popping up around Berlin. Their message, in bulky letters on a black background, was hard to forget but difficult to comprehend: The dead are coming.

Then, on Monday morning, at a quiet cemetery in the north of the city, they began to arrive.

The dead in question were migrants who had perished in the Mediterranean Sea attempting to reach Europe. Their bodies had been exhumed from Italy, with their relatives' permission, by a group of activists who intend to bury them in the German capital this week.

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At the first funeral, two coffins – for a Syrian refugee and her young child – sat next to a freshly prepared plot. On a nearby grassy slope, the activists had placed the flags of all the European Union nations.

"Our politicians are responsible," said Stefan Pelzer, a spokesman for the Center for Political Beauty, the group of artists and activists that organized the funeral. "Everyone who was here today was facing the consequences of what we are doing with our refugee policies."

The funeral was both a dramatic political statement and a queasy piece of performance art. It's also a sign of the growing sense of shame in places such as Germany at the number of migrant deaths on Europe's borders.

The summer is the period when the greatest number of migrants will attempt the perilous journey. From the beginning of the year through the end of May, 1,865 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean, compared with 425 during the same period last year, according to the International Organization for Migration. Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea are the sources of the largest numbers of migrants.

The European Union has intensified its search-and-rescue efforts but also pledged to prevent boats from making the crossing in the first place. Its member nations are currently bickering about a proposal to accept refugees among them according to a new formula.

In Germany, the number of refugees has jumped in recent years. Yet while the country is a desirable destination for many migrants and asylum seekers, its geographic location isolates it somewhat from what is unfolding in the Mediterranean.

This week's series of events hopes to change that. The activist group claims it will hold more funerals in the coming days, culminating in a protest in front of Chancellor Angela Merkel's office on Sunday, where they aim to bring excavators to dig a symbolic grave there.

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While policy makers fumble for a solution, some citizens are taking matters into their own hands. Harald Hoeppner and Mathias Kuhnt, two businessmen from the Brandenburg region around Berlin, decided last year to use their savings to buy a small boat and do what they could to help. Their volunteer crew includes medical and nautical personnel and will launch this week to patrol the waters near Sicily for three months this summer, dispensing life rafts and life vests to anyone in distress.

"Doing nothing is not an option for us," said Mr. Hoeppner in a statement last week. "It's urgent that we find ways for people to exercise their basic right to claim asylum without them having to risk their lives."

Last year, an Italian-American couple based in Malta launched their own private rescue operation, known as Migrant Offshore Aid Station. Earlier this month, it rescued 372 people, mostly from Eritrea, from overloaded boats in the Mediterranean.

The story of the woman who was buried on Monday in Berlin is tragically common. She left Damascus with her husband and four children, according to Mr. Pelzer, flying to Sudan then travelling to Libya, where they boarded an overloaded boat. Near the Italian island of Lampedusa, the boat was spotted by a commercial vessel, and as the passengers rushed to see their rescuers, it capsized. The father and the three oldest children survived; the mother and the youngest, only two, died in the water. The child's body was never found.

David Verhoeven, a 23-year old political science student doing an internship at the German parliament, saw a notice online for Monday's funeral and resolved to attend it. "There are not a lot of opportunities to show solidarity with the victims or the dead," he said.

For others, it was more personal. Solara Shiha, 26, an architecture student, arrived in Berlin from Syria two years ago, one of only 11 people to receive a coveted scholarship to study in Germany. Her brother was killed last year. "It's very emotional," she said on Monday outside the cemetery gates. "I can be here for someone whose family is not here."

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