— In one photograph, a pretty, young Eritrean woman dressed in cheerful colors smiles brightly into the camera. In another, glazed eyes stare out of a blue, bloated face, typical of drowning victims.
But it is the teeth, frozen in a grimace of death, that the scientists here were interested in. They were a match.
The finding will allow them at least to let the woman’s family know for sure that she — their daughter, wife or sister perhaps — was indeed among the 368 migrants who died when their boat capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa two years ago this month as they tried to make their way to Europe
So far this year, almost 2,900 migrants have drowned making the crossing to Europe from North Africa
. Very often, they are the nameless victims of one of this young century’s greatest tidal movements of people fleeing war and poverty — dying in anonymity, far from home, their loved ones left in limbo about their fates, and the authorities uncertain of exactly who they are.
Since the spring of 2014, however, this laboratory at the University of Milan has been working to give a name to those hundreds of unidentified migrants who drowned at sea in the Lampedusa wreck and others.
“Our battle is not to lose the dead,” said Dr. Cristina Cattaneo, a forensic pathologist, who runs the Labanof, the laboratory that has been building a databank to help identify the scores of victims of some of the worst migrant shipwrecks off Italy in recent years.
Even now, two years after the sinking, nearly 200 victims of the Lampedusa wreck have not been officially identified. “The more decomposed they are the more difficult it is to identify them,” Dr. Cattaneo said.
Fearful of European regulations that force migrants to ask for asylum in the first country in which they land, many migrants do not carry any ID, making identification even harder.
Another challenge has been reaching the families of the victims, many of whom live in war-torn or repressive countries, or in places where medical records are difficult to retrieve.
“Our problem has been contacting relatives,” said Vittorio Piscitelli, since 2014 Italy’s High Commissioner for Missing Persons, whose office has reached out to embassies and various humanitarian agencies — like the International Committee for the Red Cross — for assistance.
Even when relatives can be tracked down in Europe, getting them to come to Italy for the identification process can be time consuming and costly. In addition, in countries like Eritrea
, where many of the Lampedusa victims came from, relatives of migrants risk repercussions from an oppressive government.
Still, over the past years, small groups of family members of presumed victims have traveled to Italy — initially to Rome but now to the lab — hoping to find news of their loved ones.
They bring fragments of lost lives — photographs, ID cards and photos or videos, clinical and dental records and personal effects like toothbrushes or combs — to help make a match.
At the lab, assisted by a psychologist, they are interviewed by trained personnel and then pore through an evolving database of personal effects, like bracelets or necklaces, phones, or clothes, looking for identifying clues.
DNA comparisons are also made, and much of the data is culled from autopsies: tattoos, surgery scars, dental records and other biological remains.
Adal Neguse, 40, an Eritrean migrant now living in Stockholm
, was the first relative to arrive in Lampedusa after the Oct. 3, 2013, shipwreck, searching for his brother Abraham.
He determined from survivors that his brother had perished, and spent a fruitless week trying to find his corpse, looking at photographs of the victims.
“I finally had to stop because it was too disturbing,” he said. Abraham was eventually identified some months later through the clothing he was wearing.
In Lampedusa, Mr. Neguse was inundated by telephone calls from other Eritreans who could not make the trip and did not know whom to call for information.
“People would ring all day and night,” said Mr. Neguse, who passed through Rome on Monday to take part in a commemoration ceremony for the Lampedusa victims on the island.
The aim of the laboratory, and of the Italian authority that oversees it, is eventually to help relatives like him identify their loved ones by setting up a broad database of all the victims of the Mediterranean crossing to Italy
In attempting to do so, Italy was “moved by humanitarian and ethical reasons, as well as a sense of pietas for the dead, and to grant relatives some peace,” said Mr. Piscitelli, who coordinates the laboratory’s work.
In fact, the Lampedusa sinking of Oct. 3, 2013, though a tragedy that riveted global attention on the scale and dangers of the migrants’ crossing, is just one of several sizable calamities that the authorities and the lab have had to deal with.
Another 200 or so migrants — again mostly Eritrean — died off Lampedusa eight days after the Oct. 3 sinking. And this April, more than 700 people drowned when their ship sank some 70 nautical miles off Libya.
The Italian Navy began removing the corpses from the wreck near Libya
in July and Dr. Cattaneo’s team has been carrying out the autopsies in an improvised, but high-tech, tent set up on a NATO base in Melilli, Sicily
The team involves experts from four universities as well as biologists, anthropologists, forensic dentists and specialized technicians developing a single protocol that can be used in any shipwreck situation, she said.
After autopsies, the victims have been buried in cemeteries throughout Sicily.
So far, some 20 victims have been identified through the lab’s work.
“It’s a small number, but it means that the procedure works,” Dr. Cattaneo said. “The problem is how to enlarge it. The bigger the numbers, the bigger the costs.”
Mr. Piscitelli’s office has been lobbying to expand the database to include the victims of all shipwrecks in Italy. As of now, the lab has focused on three major shipwrecks. Other disasters have been handled by local police and prosecutors, and Mr. Piscitelli would like to better coordinate their results into one database.
But for now, his office does not have the resources. Humanitarian agencies charge that few resources are allocated to missing migrants because the dead are not a priority.
As political strife and economic conditions remain unstable in parts of the Middle East
and Africa, there is no indication that migrants will stop gambling their lives for a better future in Europe any time soon. And if anything, those here say, the need for their work will continue to expand.
“It will never be over as long as poor people attempt the Mediterranean crossing, putting their lives at risk,” Mr. Piscitelli said.