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A deadly year for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean. More than 4,200 have died in that sea this year, hundreds more than in 2015. Italy could surpass Greece as Europe's major migrant refugee point of entry. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, the country's trying to combat smuggling and identify the many victims who die in the crossings from Africa.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: On Via Ramazzini in Rome, there's a sprawling park that belongs to the Red Cross. That's where newly arrived migrants are sheltered in a tent camp. A man from Eritrea stands on the sidewalk outside.
How long here in Italy - months?
YARID HAILAH: Two weeks.
POGGIOLI: Two weeks.
POGGIOLI: How was the crossing?
HAILAH: Yeah, dangerous.
POGGIOLI: Twenty-five-year-old Yarid Hailah says his boat filled up with water. And after 10 hours, the 190 people on board were rescued. Nobody died. Inside the compound, reporters are not authorized to talk to the 400 migrants currently living there.
Rome Red Cross president Debora Diodati says it's a transit site. Migrants should stay only five to six days and then move to better facilities. But with European borders closing, the massive number of arrivals has caused a logjam. The shelter system, she says, is exploding.
DEBORA DIODATI: (Through interpreter) This is no longer an emergency. The influx started a decade ago. Tent camps are not a solution. We need more humane, solid shelters as well as procedures to integrate them in our society. It's not just an Italian problem.
POGGIOLI: Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has repeatedly accused the European Union of not helping Italy with the growing number of arrivals, living and dead. At a press conference this week, the Italian commander of the EU's Mediterranean mission, Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino, said most migrant victims die in Libyan waters where the EU cannot intervene. But he says, the mission's anti-human smuggling operations have had a strong deterrent effect.
ENRICO CREDENDINO: Since the traffickers and smugglers cannot leave the territorial waters of Libya - before we were there, they used big fishing vessels, which they cannot use today. I think that we've done a lot of damage to their business model.
POGGIOLI: With their big vessels destroyed, smugglers now use less sturdy rubber dinghies prone to capsizing, and the death toll rises. Parliament this week hosted a panel on the rights of the deceased migrants. One of the speakers was 31-year-old Eritrean Tadese Fisaha. He survived the October 2013 shipwreck off the island of Lampedusa that claimed 369 lives. Fisaha is grateful to the fishermen who saved him and his brother.
TADESE FISAHA: They helped many, many people. They saved many lives - many lives. The people of Lampedusa like my family.
POGGIOLI: Another speaker was forensic pathologist Cristina Cattaneo, chosen by the government to head an ambitious program to create a DNA database of the thousands of deceased migrants. Many migrants, she says, carry documents sewn in their clothes.
CRISTINA CATTANEO: What they have sometimes is very moving because they will have some personal documentation that they may think is important for their future. In the last mission we did in Sicily, we found the report card of a 15-year-old with his marks in physics and chemistry.
POGGIOLI: After autopsies are carried out, the biggest challenge is the creation of a Europe-wide network that collects and pools all the information.
Identifying the dead, says Cattaneo, is necessary to help families grieve, to provide documents for orphans and, not least, to ensure the civil rights of the deceased. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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