The fate of human remains in a maritime context and feasibility for forensic humanitarian action to assist in their recovery and identification

Forensic Sci Int. 2017 Oct;279:229-234. doi: 10.1016/j.forsciint.2017.07.039. Epub 2017 Aug 7.


The number of annual maritime fatalities reported in the Mediterranean has more than doubled in the last two years, a phenomenon closely linked to the increase of migrants attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean. The majority of victims reportedly never gets recovered, which in part relates to the fact that the mechanisms and interaction of factors affecting marine taphonomy are still largely not understood. These factors include intrinsic factors such as whether the individual was alive or dead at the time of submergence, the individual's stature and clothing, as well as extrinsic factors such including ambient temperature, currents, water depth, salinity and oxygen levels. This paper provides a compilation of the current literature on factors influencing marine taphonomy, recovery and identification procedures for submerged remains, and discusses the implications for the retrieval and identification of maritime mass fatalities as part of the humanitarian response, specifically humanitarian forensic action, to the consequences of the current migration phenomenon.

Keywords: Disaster victim identification; Forensic humanitarian action; Maritime body recovery; Maritime taphonomy; Submerged remains.

MeSH terms

  • Accidents*
  • Animals
  • Biometric Identification
  • Drowning*
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Forensic Sciences / methods*
  • Fresh Water
  • Humans
  • Oceans and Seas
  • Postmortem Changes*
  • Ships*