In Italy, the tragic job of identifying bodies of drowned refugees

Skills of Italian forensic experts tested, with over 3,000 people so far this year dying at sea trying to reach Europe

The shy children from a dog-eared photograph found in the pocket of a migrant drowned off Italy may never know what happened to the man who might have been their father.

Putting names to those who die while crossing the Mediterranean to Europe is a huge challenge for forensic scientists, with clues sometimes limited to no more than a scar or a solitary tattoo.

Cristina Cattaneo and her team pull on sanitary gloves, robes and masks and transfer from refrigerated truck to autopsy table the latest bodies to be recovered from an April shipwreck in which 800 people are believed to have died.

"We have to do everything possible to give back names and surnames to these people," said Cattaneo, the head of the Labanof Forensic Pathology Laboratory, which specializes in identifying decomposed, burned or mutilated remains.

Since the first large-scale wrecks off Lampedusa in 2013, Italy has been looking at ways to establish the names of all those who perish while fleeing war, poverty or persecution in Africa, the Middle East or South Asia.

It is a herculean task: There are no passenger lists on crossings organized by traffickers, documents are quickly destroyed in water, and many people are not reported missing because relatives fear repercussions from oppressive governments.

According to the International Office of Migration's Missing Migrants Project, the deadliest and most popular destination across the Mediterranean is Italy, followed by Greece and Spain. 

The office notes that deteriorating sea conditions this time of year means more shipwrecks and casualties. 

Italian pathologists examine one gray, bloated face after another in hopes of giving each of them a backstory.

And with at least 3,440 deaths so far this year on sea crossings to Europe, other frontline countries like Greece, Spain and Malta are taking notes.

‘Respect for human dignity’

A forensic medic at the Labanof Forensic Pathology laboratory preparing for autopsies of refugees recovered after an April shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea, on Nov. 5, 2015, in Melilli, on Sicily in Italy.
Marcello Paternostro/AFP/Getty Images

"This is one of the most complex mass disasters in the history of forensic science," said Cattaneo as her team began work in refrigerated tents in a hangar on the Melilli NATO base in Sicily, where they examine some 20 bodies a day.

"It's a gesture of respect for human dignity," she said. "It has been shown that not knowing — leaving relatives of people probably dead in limbo — is comparable to torture."

She was called in by Italy's missing-person prefect, Vittorio Piscitelli, whose ambition is to create a European database in which DNA and other distinguishing features can be catalogued, allowing relatives in EU countries or elsewhere to find their dead.

A DNA test is useful only if close relatives can travel to the lab or send cell samples for matching — not an option for many.

So the Labanof team takes photographs of features such as "the dental arch, forehead, earlobes, scars, any artificial limbs," tattoos and piercings and collects them in an album to be shown to people looking for someone, Piscitelli said.

"We've already managed to identify 28 people this way, showing the album to people who traveled here from Germany, Switzerland, France," he said, adding that they hope to reach many others through the International Commission on Missing Persons.

The commission made its name by identifying over two-thirds of some 40,000 missing people from the 1990s Balkan wars. It has since worked with victims of natural disasters such as the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.

It has offered to help Rome spread the word about the album, provide DNA swab kits that can be sent back to be tested for a match and repatriate bodies when they are identified.

Piscitelli has appealed to foreign embassies and humanitarian agencies such as the International Committee for the Red Cross for support.

On the other side of Sicily, Palermo's anti-Mafia squad has set up its own version of the album, with photographs of objects recovered from corpses brought ashore there, many of them victims of mass suffocation in the holds of crammed boats.

The originals are kept in a vault — necklaces, passport photographs, pocket-size Qurans, mobile phones, 100 dollar and 50 euro banknotes, stored forlornly in plastic pockets that give off the cloying odor of putrefaction.

"Those poor victims, after many days at sea, arrived in absolutely indescribable conditions. They were unrecognizable, their faces disfigured by the advanced state of decay," said Carmine Mosca, the chief of Palermo's homicide department.

"Even those who had traveled with them, friends or family, could not recognize them," he said, adding that word of mouth helped draw relatives there. "Some were identified thanks to the last numbers they dialed or numbers written on paper or even inside clothing, in the waistband of jeans." 

Creating a European databank in which such identifiers could be pooled will not be easy, with resources directed to surviving refugees rather than the dead.

But Piscitelli and Cattaneo are determined to see the protocol copied in every country and overseen by a European body. "The numbers may be small so far, but we've shown it works," Cattaneo said.

Wire services

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