Melilli (Sicilia) 20 agosto 2017

Migrants deceased in Mediterranean. Dental autopsy is needed

The bodies of 728 deceased migrants were recovered from a vessel wrecked on April 18, 2015. Professor Cristina Cattaneo, founder and director of LAB.AN.O.F. (Laboratory of Anthropology and Forensic Odontology) at the University of Milan is leading the identification process of deceased migrants through the coordination of the office of the Commissioner for Missing Persons , prefect Vittorio Piscitelli.
The deceased are all young males coming mainly from Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Bangladesh. Professor Cattaneo confirmed that “two-thirds of the bodies belonged to boys between the ages of 20 and 30, while a third of them were between the ages of 15 and 17”.
The autopsies for the identification purposes were carried out at a laboratory set up in the N.A.T.O. base at Melilli (Sicily) and continued thereafter at the laboratory in Milan. Contact was made through with the victims’ families, with the aim of obtaining the ante-mortem data necessary to complete the identification process. Medical examiners, forensic anthropologists and Odontologist – from the Italian Universities of Milan, Bari, Turin, Rome, Palermo and others – worked in the laboratory set up at Melilli.
“Identification above all serves the living, namely the families of the deceased and those who remain. In most cases they do not even have the possibility of obtaining a death certificate of their next of kin, with all the legal consequences for the family” explained Professor Cattaneo, in response to the complaints raised over the high cost of the operation in Sicily.
Experience in identifying migrants recovered from the Mediterranean began with the wreck of October 3, 2013, in which 366 migrants died. At that time, Prefect Vittorio Piscitelli, commissar for missing persons, applied with LAB.AN.O.F., applied, for the first time in Italy and Europe, a protocol for the identification of shipwreck victims.
The Office of the Extraordinary Government Commissioner for Missing Persons was established on June 15, 2007 with the aim of establishing the magnitude of the missing person phenomenal and unidentified human remains, and tasked with finding possible technical solutions.

In 2008 Emilio Nuzzolese, forensic odontologist from Bari (southern Italy), at the request of the commissioner, at that time Prefect Gennaro Monaco, had already pointed out the need to integrate with Dental Autopsy the process of giving an identification to “nameless bodies”. In fact, the required multidisciplinary approach for human identification does not always find complete application. Often dental examination, as performed by the medical examiner, is confused with dental autopsy and radiological collection on jaws and teeth, which can only be performed by the forensic odontologist, when appointed.
“The Italian judicial system provides,” explains Nuzzolese, “that each Prosecutor has the autonomy to evaluate the need for an autopsy by appointing a forensic pathologist. However, the prosecutor does not have an obligation to request the retrieval of DNA and very often ignores the importance of appointing as an auxiliary technical consultant a forensic odontologist in order to also perform a dental autopsy in conjunction with radiographic imaging of teeth and jaws which can establish a generic identification of the deceased. This omission inevitably leads to a delay in identification.”
The lack of a national and European protocol for the application of best practices in the identification of human remains had been denounced in the Mediterranean Missing report in September 2016 conducted by the University of York in collaboration with The International Organization for Migration (IOM). Dr. Emilio Nuzzolese made the same announcement in Leuven (Belgium) in August 2012 with his presentation “Missing People, Migrants, Identification and Human Rights” during the 9th International Conference organized by the International Dental Ethics and Law Society (IDEALS); then in May 2013 in Lyon (France) at the annual INTERPOL International Conference on Disaster Vicim Identification; finally in 2014 to the EU Commission of Petitions with petition no. 1113/2014 on the need to harmonize human identification procedures in the European Union, and this year 2017 with petition no. 418/2017 on the need to update the European recommendations on medical-legal autopsy, dating back to 1999.

Dr. Nuzzolese is the only Italian forensic odontologist engaged at a national and international level to promote forensic dental services as an humanitarian tool to fight violations of human rights. He is co-founder of the International Forensic Odontology for Human Rights founded in 2015, and last year he founded a civil protection italian Association called Dental Team DVI Italia. Furthermore since 2009 he serve as Volunteer expert for the Association Penelope Italia onlus composed by Family and Friends of missing persons. He also teaches forensic odontology and the University of Turin and the University of Catanzaro, where he carries out several researches in identification (example “Selfie Forensic ID”) and Age Estimation.

“Prompt identification of bodies without identity is a moral, religious and a legal obligation,” Nuzzolese highlighted in 2012 (report then published in the Journal of Forensic Odontostomatology) (report then published in the Journal of Forensic Odontostomatology), pointing out that “the disappearance of a family member causes a suspended state of life and serious psychological suffering also caused by the inability to process mourning”. According to the expert, given the effectiveness of odontological post mortem, findings it is unacceptable not to involve a forensic odontologist in the human identification process. It is worth considering that a dental autopsy may result in a positive identification in 70% of cases, and this is achieved in a timely and cost-effective way.
“I do not mean to reduce the importance of DNA comparison, as the two methods are complementary and hopefully are applied together” added Dr. Nuzzolese.

International human rights law is very clear: States are obliged to identify migrants at international borders in order to allow a dignified burial and provide families with the “right to know” the fate of their family member (Article 26 of the IV Geneva Convention). Thanks to the commitment and work of Italian experts in pathology, anthropology and forensic odontology, the multidisciplinary protocol applied by Professor Cristina Cattaneo, professor of forensic pathology, and also suggested by INTERPOL D.V.I. (disaster victim identification forms, published as early as 1984) guidelines, should become the standard for greater respect and equal autoptic treatment of all unidentified human remains.