Mohammed Ali Malek (R), the alleged captain of the boat, after being pulled from the water. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP
Over 700 people drowned last April when their boat sank after a collision at sea during the crossing from north Africa. The navy has so far recovered 169 bodies from near the wreck, which lies 380 metres (around 1,245 feet) down off Libya.
The recovery of the ship — and the majority of the bodies, still trapped inside — is expected late next month.
Italy's missing person prefect Vittorio Piscitelli has been overseeing a project to catalogue the victims' DNA and other distinguishing features in a database to help relatives track down their missing loved ones.
Now the herculean task of identifying the dead will be given a major boost by an agreement signed with the interior and education ministries, which has already seen over 20 universities pledge their support and assets.
The current collaboration with universities in Milan, Catania, Messina and Palermo will be extended to “the entire Italian university system”, with volunteers offering “skills in forensic medicine, forensic pathology and
forensic genetics”, the interior ministry said in a statement.
Since the first large-scale migrant wrecks off Lampedusa island in 2013, Italy has been looking at ways to establish the names of all those who perish while fleeing war, poverty or persecution in Africa, the Middle East or South Asia.
But there are no passenger lists on crossings organised by traffickers, documents are quickly destroyed in water and many people are not reported missing because relatives fear repercussions from oppressive governments.
The migrant boat, carrying as many as 800 people, sank after running into a Portuguese freighter which had raced to its rescue, the collision sending its passengers over to one side and causing the vessel to tip over.
The man accused of being the boat's captain, Tunisian Mohammed Ali Malek, was arrested after he was pulled to safety with 27 other men — the sole survivors — and is currently on trial in Italy on charges of multiple manslaughter.
Malek and his alleged second mate, Syrian Mahmoud Bikhit, are also accused of causing a shipwreck and people smuggling.