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Image: imago/Anan Sesa

Italy begins salvaging refugee shipwreck

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
April 20, 2016

Last year, a ship carrying around 800 asylum seekers sank off the coast of Libya, killing all except a handful of migrants. Now Rome has begun a challenging operation to retrieve the vessel and identify the refugees.


At least 400 dead migrants could be present in the hold of the vessel that rests on the sea floor 375 meters deep, 157 kilometers off the Libyan coast, Italy's special envoy for missing persons, Prefect Vittorio Piscitelli, said in Rome. "These are estimated numbers, but we do not rule out surprises," the dpa news agency quoted him as saying.

In the months following the sinking on April 18, 2015, Italian teams had rescued 28 people and found 169 bodies. The new operation focused on finding the rest of the victims. No estimates were available on the costs until now.

In the latest efforts, the Italian navy, or Marina Militare, was going to lift up the vessel, cover it and refrigerate it to preserve the bodies. This would then be shipped to NATO's Melilli base in Sicily, where forensic experts from Piscitelli's team would try to trace the victims' origins.

Italien Bootsflüchtlinge
Over a million migrants reached Europe by sea last yearImage: picture alliance/epa/Italian Navy

Identifying the migrants

"We have to do a complete post-mortem on all the bodies," Cristina Cattaneo, the head of the Labanof Labs, which was overseeing the operation, told DW. Her team would conduct external examinations, autopsies and collect all kinds of samples to help identify the drowned persons.

"We will be making photographs, describing personal belongings. We will do external examinations for scars and tattoos, internal examinations for bone calluses or operations, a complete dental examination, and we will do a sampling for DNA analysis," Cattaneo elaborated.

Forensic scientists were collecting all this data because they were not sure which information would lead them to the victim's true identification. The second part of the project would be to find information from friends and families of the people who were on the ill-fated boat. In a similar project on dead migrants in Lampedusa, Piscitelli's team looked for relatives through NGOs and embassies, and was successful in tracing several victims' families and true identities, Cattaneo said.

But the forensic expert admitted that it would be difficult to find out about the victims' lives before they went missing. Many would not be identifiable by DNA only, Cattaneo said, adding that it would be difficult to discern "which identification strategy biologically would be the best one" to find out the victims' origins.

After the bodies are identified, officials will try to send them back to relatives, if possible. Otherwise the refugees are likely to be buried in separate locations, officials told the press.

Symbolbild Flüchtlingsboot vor Sizilien
Hundreds of migrants fleeing war and poverty have lost their lives trying to cross over to EuropeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

A humanitarian effort

When the ship carrying an estimated 800 passengers sank last April, the United Nations called it the "deadliest such disaster in the Mediterranean."

The sinking shocked nations across the world, with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi promising to retrieve the boat because he did not want the world to get the impression that his country had forgotten about the dead migrants.

For officials like Prefect Piscitelli, who thought the exercise would burnish Italy's benevolent image, and forensic expert Cristina Cattaneo, the motivation to unearth the migrant ship was primarily humanitarian.

"All dead and unidentified bodies have the same dignity. Identification of the bodies is fundamental, not only for the dead and for their dignity, but also for those who are living, for their loved ones," Cattaneo told DW.

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