Giving names to the dead: The grim side of Italy's migrant crisis

2015-10-28 18:33


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Rome - From a small office on the fifth floor of a drab building near Rome's main train station, Prefect Vincenzo Piscitelli is the man co-ordinating one of the grimmest jobs linked to Europe's ongoing migration crisis.

The 62-year-old interior ministry official is overseeing efforts to pull out and identify hundreds of bodies caught up in an April 18 shipwreck, considered the biggest Mediterranean migration accident to date.

"It is a very, very expensive operation," Piscitelli said in an interview with dpa, without elaborating on numbers. "But respecting the piety of the dead is something that we can never back away from, regardless of the circumstances," he added.

Piscitelli's official job title is government special commissioner for missing persons. He deals with about 15 000 cases per year and is alerted whenever dead people are found and cannot be identified, such as in shipwreck cases.

Six months ago, naval rescue teams in the central Mediterranean found 24 bodies and 28 survivors, who said that their vessel had overturned and sunk, taking with it hundreds more people trapped in its hold, behind locked doors.

The accident shocked public opinion and jolted the European Union into conducting emergency summits and pledging fresh action to prevent more tragedies. It also led Italian Premier Matteo Renzi to issue a whatever-it-takes pledge to recover the wreck.

"We will go fetch that boat, the one that sank in last month's carnage, and we will lift it up. I want the whole world to see what happened. It is unacceptable for some people to keep thinking along the lines of 'out of sight, out of mind'," he said in May.

A month later, the Italian navy found the vessel about 157km northeast of the Libyan coast, 375m below sea level. In the following months, workers recovered 118 bodies found on the wreck or besides it.

Contradicting information released earlier this month, Piscitelli said recovery efforts had not stopped and had moved on to "phase two", with a private contractor working on behalf of the navy to lift the entire vessel up to the surface.

"Everything should be completed in about 120 days, weather permitting," he said.

Forensic pathologists 

Once that happens, authorities expect to find 400 more bodies. The plan is to have them inspected one by one by a team of forensic pathologists led by Labanof, a University of Milan laboratory that is supporting Piscitelli's work.

Doctors look out for unique human features, like ear lobes and dental arches, or other distinguishing marks, such as tattoos, piercings, items of clothing or jewellery, and compile a detailed report. DNA samples are extracted only as a last resort.

The material is then compared with equally detailed descriptions of missing migrants. When they match, relatives are summoned - through the help of non-governmental associations - to what Piscitelli described as "very emotionally trying meetings".

It is a slow, painful process that has already been conducted on 387 bodies recovered from two October 2013 shipwrecks, including a notorious one off the island of Lampedusa that killed 366. But identification was possible in only about 30 cases.

Piscitelli said there was an element of national pride in carrying through the laborious exercise, as Italy wants to "show to the rest of Europe how [it] is striving to give dignity and a rightful burial" to victims.

He also mentioned plans to build a migrants' cemetery, modelled on the mass burial sites built after World Wars I and II, to take in the bodies of all the dead migrants currently scattered around Sicily and the rest of Southern Italy.

"We have British [war] cemeteries, American [war] cemeteries, why not a cemetery for migrants? For the moment it is just an idea, we are considering its feasibility," he said, acknowledging that a human rights group was pursuing a similar plan.

The Movimento Diritti Civili wants to build a 10 000m² cemetery in Calabria, the region that forms the tip of Italy's boot, near a former concentration camp for Jews, and name it after Aylan al-Kurdi, a Syrian toddler found dead on Turkish shores last month.

The group's leader, Franco Cordelli, has told Italian media that the €4m project, to be hosted by the city of Tarsia, should be funded by the Calabria region and - possibly - the national government and the EU.

Read more on:    eu  |  italy  |  migrants

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