MILAN – Adal Netuse, an Eritrean immigrant whose brother drowned in a smuggler's boat while trying to reach Italy in 2013, knows all too well what might be in store for the relatives of those who died last month in a similar accident in the Mediterranean.
Months of anguish over whether their loved one's body will be found.
The emotional pain of looking at photos of badly disfigured corpses.
Red tape and wasted time with bureaucrats who "just talk and talk" but don't keep their promises.
As record numbers of desperate migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Asia flood into Europe, hundreds are also dying in risky journeys arranged by unscrupulous smugglers, and authorities are struggling to identify those victims.
As of Sept. 1, at least 350,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe this year. More than 2,700 are known to have died, or are lost and presumed dead, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Only about a third of the recovered bodies are ever identified, said Frank Laczko, head of the IOM's Global Migration Data Analysis Center in Berlin.
"If each person has 10 relatives, that's close to 30,000 people who are affected," Laczko said. Besides the emotional pain, survivors must cope with legal issues such as property ownership to the right to remarry.
When Austrian authorities opened a truck apparently abandoned by smugglers on a highway near Vienna on Aug. 27, they discovered 71 badly decomposed bodies of men, women and children, and officials said some may never be identified. Another tragedy that same day left Libyan authorities with the task of identifying scores of bodies from two boats that sank off the coast.
In a commercial disaster like a plane crash, authorities have passenger manifests, electronic tickets, credit card records and data from travel agencies to work with. But human traffickers understandably usually keep no records when they arrange passage to Europe for those paying cash, so there are no emergency contacts and no way to contact relatives. And many refugees carry no ID.
Laczko said his agency wants a Europe-wide database for families to provide information about missing relatives and for authorities to distribute details about bodies they have found. He also wants far more attention paid to mining data from cellphones found on victims.
In the case of the truck ditched in Austria, experts are studying Syrian documents found with the dead but also have taken their fingerprints, DNA samples and dental information, in addition to data from 10 cellphones, police spokesman Helmut Marban said.
A hotline with Arabic, English and German speakers received more than 100 calls in its first two days. Marban would not disclose if any relatives have been located, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.
Some 2,535 people, mostly Eritreans and other sub-Saharan Africans, have died this year in the longer and more hazardous sea route from Libya to Europe, and most of the estimated 600 bodies recovered have ended up in Libya or Italy, according to the IOM. At the same time, about 114,000 have landed safely in Italy.
Over a longer period, from Oct. 18, 2013 through Aug. 26 this year, Italy has received a total of 382 bodies, the Italian Interior Ministry said.
Greece has logged 234,778 arrivals via the shorter route from Turkey, with 85 people dying along the way. Sixty of those bodies were recovered and most of them were brought to Greece, while some were sent to Turkey, the IOM said.
When the bodies end up in Italy, its main forensics team, based on the island of Sicily, gathers what information it can: fingerprints, a DNA sample, dental information and a list of tattoos and any other distinguishing marks.
Italy has plenty of experience, dealing with maritime disasters involving smugglers' boats for years. But two tragedies in 2013 off Lampedusa, a tiny island 70 miles (115 kilometers) closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, changed much about how the world views the waves of migrants.
On Oct. 3, 2013, a trawler sank near the island, and authorities recovered 368 bodies, mostly of Eritrean refugees. Eight days later, there was another shipwreck south of Lampedusa in which nearly 200 people are believed to have drowned.
Until recently, the bodies were found were recorded in Italy's missing persons' register sparely: "African ethnicity," or even "shipwrecked." The minimal descriptions belied an official view of the futility of ever getting a positive identification.
"Before there was the view that we only needed to identify Italians. In reality, that's not the case," said Vittorio Piscitelli, who took over the government office for missing people in 2013.
The office recorded 1,300 missing people through June 30, 2014, most of them Italians and some dating back decades, but also including hundreds of migrants.
Piscitelli and his team partnered with other organizations to set up a protocol for identifying the dead from the October 2013 tragedies. Just this year, they began reaching out to migrant and refugee communities in Europe to find relatives that can help with the process. North America is next.
The physical descriptions in the Italian missing persons' ledger have grown more robust, and DNA samples were taken of all the October 2013 victims — which authorities say will ultimately help resolve more cold cases.
So far, the official protocol applies only to the October 2013 tragedies. DNA samples were not typically taken of migrant victims prior to the two shipwrecks, and the identification process is otherwise handled by local police, meaning family members must figure out which jurisdiction to contact. Piscitelli hopes to be able to expand it to apply to more recent wrecks.
Of the 368 bodies recovered from the Oct. 3, 2013, sinking and the 21 bodies in the second shipwreck, 195 were identified right away, Piscitelli said. Under the new protocols, another nine bodies have been identified, with tentative identification on another 19.
One of the dead from Oct. 3 was the 26-year-old brother of Netuse, the Eritrean immigrant.
Netuse considers himself "the lucky one" to have his brother Abraham identified.
In an interview in a park near his Stockholm home, Netuse said the process took 18 agonizing months — from the moment smugglers in Libya confirmed his brother was on the capsized trawler to the final DNA confirmation.
He had traveled to Lampedusa immediately to seek information about his brother's fate. He looked at hundreds of photos of the dead, eventually giving up under the emotional strain of seeing so many badly disfigured faces.
"I was there one week, and I couldn't find him. But I talked to his friend who was there. He told me ... he drowned. But I didn't get an official answer to my questions," Netuse said.
No one took a DNA sample from him on that first visit to Lampedusa. He finally gave one when he was there again for a memorial on the tragedy's anniversary. While there, he was told results would come in a month; the positive identification actually took six months.
"They promised a lot of things, but they don't keep their promises," he said.
Netuse said officials told him that Abraham is buried in Sicily in a grave that is marked with a number but not a name.
Piscitelli said identifying the remaining bodies from the October 2013 wrecks will require help from relatives, many of whom are out of reach inside oppressive nations or in conflict zones.
A group called the Oct. 3 Committee, meanwhile, works with the Eritrean diaspora in Europe, seeking both DNA samples and documents.
Gergishu Yohannes, an Eritrean living in Germany for 30 years, assists others who are struggling with the uncertainty of a vanished relative.
She is motivated by the loss of her brother, Abel, who disappeared in 2009 while on a small boat from Libya to Italy and has never been found.
The craft, carrying 85 people, ran out of fuel near Malta. Adrift and out of food and water, the passengers began dying one by one, and their bodies were thrown overboard. When Italian authorities finally them three weeks after they had set off, only five remained alive, Yohannes said.
She helps others, she said, "so that they won't have a fate like me, waiting every day, and can identify their loved ones."
Until her brother's body is found, Yohannes said she cannot rest.
"One waits every day, and I'm still waiting today," she said. "I cannot give it up."
Rising reported from Berlin, and Keyton from Stockholm. Paolo Santalucia in Rome and Christoph Noelting in Wachtberg, Germany, contributed to this story.