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Europe should promote regulations to identify buried bodies without names

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Europe should promote regulations to identify buried bodies without names

On August 9, 2023, 41 people disappeared off the coast of Lampedusa. According to the testimonies of the four passengers who survived, the boat left the coast of Tunisia and carried 45 people, including three children. This episode is part of a long list of maritime tragedies in recent years. It happened almost ten years after the shipwreck on October 3, 2013, which also happened off the coast of Lampedusa and is considered one of the worst maritime accidents of the 21st century.

Five months later, on the night of June 13-14, the sinking of another ship off the coast of Greece caused the disappearance of several hundred people. Due to the insufficient recovery operations of the wreck and the lack of subsequent forensic examinations, the identity of the men, women and children who died in this tragedy cannot be formally established, thus adding to the long list of unknown dead. who, as a result, remains missing. Loss of data collection post mortemas well as the absence of activation procedures for data collection before death to the relatives of the deceased, raises many ethical and legal questions. They make it difficult for relatives of the deceased to grieve without the body or to initiate the usual procedures for handling death, procedures that increasingly require a death certificate.

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In the last two decades, the death of unidentified people in and around Europe has increased dramatically. This phenomenon is closely linked to the growing danger of cross-border migration and, especially, crossing the sea. Beyond those lost at sea, whose exact identity is often unknown, the increase in the number of deaths that remain unknown in European territory must be recognized. We have observed, for example, a growing trend of arriving at the forensic services in Paris and Milan in corpses without any element of identity and for which we do not have any specific protocol to apply. These protocols exist for disaster victims, but they are rarely used in individual cases that receive such services on a daily basis.

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This reality is part of a more general context in which forensic science has made significant advances, especially regarding the sampling, cross-referencing and archiving of morphological, biometric and genetic data for purposes to recognize the person. Joint efforts at the European level to define a common legislative framework may one day make it possible to recognize these unknown bodies. If European law protects the duty of the state to identify unidentified corpses, which imposes the collection of scientific data before death of relatives (photos, x-rays, clinical and genetic material) and their data comparison post mortem collected during autopsies of unidentified corpses, it will be possible for us to create and consolidate biometric databases with genetic characteristics and profiles to increase the possibilities of identifying these bodies without identity and thus providing answers to their families and society.

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On April 18, 2015, in response to the strong emotions caused by the sinking of a fishing boat, Italy took the initiative to recover the sunken 400 meters deep to try to identify some of the approx. 1,000 victims. This laudable initiative has unfortunately not changed during the series of shipwrecks and, in relative silence, our societies have become accustomed to the fact that men, women and children can disappear without a trace and without their families have been notified.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the shipwreck on October 3, 2013 and we feel it is important to turn our emotions into action. We call for a collective commitment to implement the necessary efforts to facilitate and guarantee the search for the identity of the unidentified bodies, thus bringing back the missing relatives who are still looking for their families. This cannot be achieved without a new legislative push at the European level on this matter.