Massive Effort Underway to Recover More Than 700 Migrants Drowned at Sea

Forensic scientists hope to use DNA to identify the remains

Ievoli Ivory
Italian ship the Ievoli Ivory aids the effort to raise a sunken ship that carried migrants screenshot from via

In April 2015, the Mediterranean saw one of its worse disasters in the ongoing migrant crisis when a large fishing boat carrying hundreds of people sank just over 80 miles off the coast of Libya. Only 28 on board survived, leaving hundreds trapped inside the boat. Now, a team of technicians is working to raise the boat and retrieve the remains of the people who died, reports Barbie Latza Nadeau for Scientific American

The recovery effort plans to keep the 65-foot-long wreck preserved on board a large carrier ship and transported to Sicily. There, members of Italy's Fire Brigade will collect the bodies and forensic scientists will start the arduous, heart-breaking task of identifying the victims. Already, Italian Navy divers have recovered 169 bodies near the wreck, reports the Associated Press.

The human traffickers that tried to send migrants across dangerous waters in a decommissioned, unseaworthy boat did not create a passenger manifest, Latza Nadeau writes. So the experts will take DNA samples, cranium measurements and photos to build an online database for people searching for lost loved ones.

When the boat sank, Jim Yardley of The New York Times reported on the tragically high death toll. Typically, the boats that human traffickers use to cross the Mediterranean are smaller, bought off fisherman who can no longer use them and might carry less than 200 people. This boat, however, had multiple tiers and had been packed full. The survivors estimated 950 people had been on board.

"We have said too many times 'Never again,'"said Italian Federica Mogherini at the time, Yardley reported. She serves as the European Union's foreign policy chief. "Now is time for the European Union as such to tackle these tragedies without delay." 

Latza Nadeau writes that the disaster of the overloaded fishing boat played out like many do. After leaving shore in the early morning, someone contacted the Italian coast guard using a satellite phone. No coast guard vessels were on hand, so a Portuguese cargo ship arrived on the scene and tried to let migrants on board. 

According to passengers in sworn affidavits as reported by Latza Nadeau, one of the two smugglers in charge of the fishing boat was high on marijuana and drunk on wine when he sharply turned the helm to slam into the cargo ship. As a result, the boat and its many passengers sunk. Both smugglers onboard survived and now are standing trial.

In part because of the April 2015 tragedy, as well as a spike in the death toll from such crossings, the EU started using naval vessels to board, search and seize boats that were being used for trafficking. However, so-called Operation Sophia has not been successful in deterring the smugglers, a report from the U.K.'s House of Lords states, writes Pavitra Dwibhashyam for the International Business Times.

"However valuable as a search and rescue mission, Operation Sophia does not, and we argue, cannot, deliver its mandate. It responds to symptoms, not causes," according to the report.

Refugees from Syria, people from sub-Saharan African seeking work and Eitreans fleeing military conscription are some of those seeking to cross into Europe from Libya and build a new lifeAmnesty International explains that when overland and legal immigration routes became more difficult for refugees, many turned to sea crossings. Human traffickers saw an opportunity to make money off their desperation.

On the one year anniversary of the vessel's destruction, the Italian navy was able to send a team of recovery vessels to the site, Weather has brought challenges, but they are continuing to work when they can. One of the first things that the recovery team did was use a submersible remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to lay a wreath of flowers on the bow of the sunken boat, in respect for those who lost their lives, a video shows.

Latza Nadeau reports that the Italian Prime Minister Matteao Renzi has vowed to "give every one of the migrants a decent burial."