A courageous scientist is attempting to identify the badly decomposed remains of 700 people who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.
Few migrants who perish at sea are ever positively identified, even though the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that as many as 20,000 people have died in the last decade making Mediterranean crossings. The corpses are typically photographed with a code that may include their sex, if identifiable, and the date they were brought to shore—that’s it. They are buried in donated cemetery plots in graves marked with their codes. It is nearly impossible for loved ones to find them because the graves are spread across places such as the islands of Sicily, Lampedusa and Malta. The photos are almost always kept by parish priests who mind the anonymous graves. Sometimes, the number of dead are reported to the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project, but the nationalities are generally logged as “unknown.” There is no central database that connects the photos and numbers and burial locations. And there is certainly no collection and cataloguing of DNA.
As one of Italy’s foremost forensic pathologists and anthropologists, Cattaneo thinks she can push the extremes of forensics so that all dead bodies are treated with equal dignity. Founder and director of the Labanof forensic pathology laboratory of the University of Milan, she has built a specialized career collecting forensic evidence from decomposed, burned and mutilated remains. The bodies she is working on under the hot Sicilian sun are those of hundreds of refugees and migrants who were escaping war and poverty. They left Libya headed for Europe by way of Italy or Malta. On April 18, 2015, their rickety, vastly overcrowded boat, known as the Peschereccio, a general term meaning fishing boat, sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. Of the estimated 800 or more onboard, only 28 men survived, making it the single deadliest migrant maritime disaster ever documented. Just 58 corpses were plucked from the ocean in the immediate aftermathThey were buried in Malta without autopsies or positive identification. The rest went down with the ship.
Cattaneo, to this day, is working hard to develop a database, complete with DNA profiles, for the mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers on that ship, whose lives she knows are as important as yacht skippers and airliner passengers. The biggest obstacle she has faced, beyond apathy toward the victims, is the limits of traditional forensic, which are based on a system of either matching viable DNA from the deceased to carefully collected DNA from a living family member or matching dental records. With migrants it is rare that family members are actively searching for their relatives because it has been impossible to even know where the person might be or if he or she might be alive or dead. Cattaneo is determined to change that.