Identifying the refugee victims of the Mediterranean

Forensic experts in Italy are working to identify the bodies of refugees drowned in the sea as they attempted to cross.

shipwrecked people are rescued
Shipwrecked people are being rescued from a boat in the Mediterranean. More than 3,600 people have drowned in the sea this year alone. [Massimo Sestini/AP]

Melilli, Italy – Eastern Sicily can become unexpectedly inhospitable in the winter, the grey landscape interrupted only by the speckles of bright orange mandarins along the train line. The onward journey becomes an equally uninviting scene, past the billowing towers of heavy industry and through the heavily guarded gate of a NATO base.

This is not the image of Europe people had in mind when stepping on to a boat off the Libyan coast on April 18, but it is where their deadly journey came to an end. More than 800 refugees are believed to have drowned that night, when their overcrowded boat crashed into a ship sent to rescue them.

The NATO base in Melilli has now become the focal point of the tragedy – the worst disaster of its kind in the Mediterranean – with bodies recovered from the sunken wreck brought to a hangar looking out on to the sea. It is here that over the past few months forensics experts have worked to try to identify the bodies, transported in on a refrigerated truck by the Italian Red Cross.

Italy’s commission for missing persons has coordinated the unprecedented operation, with the help of numerous agencies and experts from the University of Milan’s Labanof forensics laboratory.

The lab’s director, Cristina Cattaneo, said her team had been carrying out their “moral obligation” towards disaster victims.

“It’s very difficult technically. It has a much wider perspective than any other disaster. Compare it to an air crash … it’s a huge forensics challenge,” Cattaneo said. Labanof was chosen in part for the lab’s work in identifying the 118 victims killed in a crash on the runway of Milan’s Linate airport in 2001.

Searching for clues

Labanof, along with a taskforce of three Sicilian universities, postgraduate forensics students and their supervisors have so far worked to identify 156 victims, laying them out on autopsy tables wheeled into army tents inside the hangar. Along with taking DNA samples, the forensics team looks for anything else which may help them identify the bodies – distinctive physical characteristics, traces of tattoos.

Despite having vast experience in the field, Cattaneo described identifying refugee bodies as “enormously more complicated” than her usual work.

“It’s more difficult because they’re decomposed and partially skeletonised. It’s not very easy to get ante-mortem DNA samples from adequate relatives,” she said, explaining that it is often impossible to contact relatives in the home countries of the victims to get information or DNA samples.

A police unit working at Melilli has searched for other clues which may help in the process, such as identification documents, money, photos or phones found on the victims. These are all photographed, along with any jewellery found or clothes, and collected with the forensics data to create a profile for each person.

Those involved in the extraordinary efforts to identify the victims speak in a professional tone, but Cattaneo admits that there are touching moments in her work.

“These people have [tree] branches of where they came from. They tie knots in their clothes that contain the soil of the countries they came from.”

Some of that soil probably came from Eritrea, the home country of more than a quarter of those who arrived in Italy via the sea this year. More than 149,000 people have reached the Italian coast during 2015, while across Europe the figure has reached more than 960,000, with significant numbers escaping war-torn Syria. At least 3,600 people have died this year trying to reach Europe by sea.

A Sicilian farewell

Having gathered as much information as possible on the bodies recovered by the Italian navy, they have been sent for burial in cemeteries across Sicily.

The head of Italy’s missing person commission, Prefect Vittorio Piscitelli, said he was aware that some of the victims would not have wanted to be buried. But this Italian tradition is followed unless family members come forward and ask to take their relative home, or that their own burial traditions be respected.

For now, just six wooden coffins waited in the Melilli hangar, while black body bags sat in a pile and a strong smell of disinfectant hung in the air. The forensics team has departed, they must wait until next year when the shipwreck is raised and work can begin on identifying the hundreds of victims still resting inside.

Piscitelli said that while the bodies would by then be mostly decomposed, after around a year underwater, he is confident that the forensics team will at least be able to gather DNA samples.

“It’s very thorough work, a very meticulous [job] that gets done, but at the end it gives results,” he said from his Rome office, glancing at the profile of a previous shipwreck victim who has now been identified.

With the Melilli data sent to Milan, the missing persons commission sends out a notice through its diplomatic and NGO network, asking relatives to come forward. Although it is impossible to reach many of the victims’ families, a number of those who died on April 18 most likely had plans to join relatives in Europe.

A similar appeal was published around a year ago regarding earlier shipwrecks, asking those who believed they had lost loved ones to travel to Rome or Milan on given dates. Families of 65 missing people from shipwrecks in October 2013 came forward and victims are starting to be identified, while for another disaster around 40 percent of those who died have been named.

“It proves the point; if you try you can. Even for just 40 percent, they have the right to be identified if possible,” said Cattaneo, who recalled meeting the families.

“[The relatives are] in limbo … not knowing whether they are dead. You have different reactions: some are more vocal and angry, some are quiet,” she said. “They’re all in their own way very touching, moving or important.”

Giving names to victims

People have travelled from Germany, Sweden and elsewhere to try to trace their relatives, arriving in Italy where they are given a book of photos put together by the Labanof team. They are guided by anthropologists, forensic scientists and psychologists, the latter being especially important to Piscitelli “because some of the images are really terrible”.

Flicking through victim profiles, it is easy to understand what Piscitelli means. On one side are the photos of the living provided by their families, of happy moments before they sought a new life in Europe. On the other, the images of their bodies.

While the contrast is harsh, Piscitelli explained matter-of-factly that the images provided by families are vital for confirming a person’s identity. There is a woman whose jaw can be matched by a photo which appears to have been taken on a wedding day, a man whose Superman T-shirt was worn both before and during his final voyage.

“It’s a very long task, very difficult for us to give a name to these people. To be buried not with a number, but with a name,” Piscitelli said.

With only a minority of family members able to come to Italy, many send photos via email from their home countries, from which the team is then able to construct a person’s identity. “It’s rigorously scientific, with methods already tried at the forensic level,” said Piscitelli.

Each corpse is inspected for all of its unique detail, such as the shape of a person’s teeth, and while DNA is taken a full analysis is often not carried out. “We do that only if a close relative comes … [to] Italy or sends their DNA profile. In that case we do it, otherwise it’s not useful and is not necessary. It could be a cost, unnecessary spending,” said Piscitelli.

An international obligation

The researchers find the broader financial difficulties associated with this ambitious project a testament to the humanitarian spirit towards which other countries should also contribute.

“It’s very frustrating not to be able to do more; there’s a huge lack of funding,” Cattaneo explained. “The scientific activity is being done for free – nobody’s being paid for this. As a university we have a humanitarian obligation; all the universities involved are paying for the expenses.”

Some of the 27 survivors of the shipwreck that claimed 800 lives in the deadliest such disaster in the Mediterranean to date [Lino Azzopardi/AP]
Some of the 27 survivors of the shipwreck that claimed 800 lives in the deadliest such disaster in the Mediterranean to date [Lino Azzopardi/AP]

During their three stints at Melilli the forensics team ate at the base canteen and stayed in university accommodation, a reflection of the low budget, but the scientific work and equipment comes at a cost.

While the Italian government has made great efforts to save refugees at sea, the country is still recovering from the financial crisis and will mosy likely need broader support to continue its initiative for shipwreck victims.

“I think Italy is the only country doing this, to find the process to facilitate the identification of these individuals. It’s very bad that countries aren’t getting together to solve this problem. It’s in contrast to what is usually done in disasters,” said Cattaneo.

But the help needed is not just financial, and Piscitelli considers broader international cooperation to be essential.

READ MORE ON SHIPWRECK: The story of one survivor

The Italian protocol is already gaining a positive reputation among Mediterranean countries, he said, including Tunisia. “They confessed that on their coast they have also found bodies of people who come from other countries in the world and have tried to cross [the sea] there, and that they have identified them using our methodology.”

A proposal has now been put to the European Commission for EU countries to formally adopt the Italian protocol, applying it across the region whenever a refugee body is recovered. Alongside this, Piscitelli said he wants a European database to be launched so that information can be quickly circulated.

“To place this in a network means that one country can connect to our site and see if there are bodies that could concern relatives, then ask,” he explained.

Piscitelli’s office has already worked with Labanof to create a national online database, including information on around 1,300 unidentified bodies found across Italy. In recreating this on a European level, it should be easier for victims’ relatives to send information to the relevant authorities which will speed up the identification process.

Cattaneo went further still, saying offices should be set up across Europe to collect data and identify shipwreck victims. While this ideal appeared far off, Italy has now set the standard and demonstrated the potential for a European project to identify shipwreck victims.

“Surely there’s a moral obligation to try at least,” said Cattaneo. “With a little bit of money, a lot of goodwill and some hard work, it can definitely be done.”

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Source: Al Jazeera