Disaster Victim Identification


Photo by: Bhuwan Maharjan

By Jacopo Guidi

Climate change has contributed to a destabilization of the global ecosystem, reflected in an increasing incidence of disasters such as typhoons and flooding. Terror attacks around the world have also increased the need for missing persons investigations, including measures to identify human remains in emergency circumstances. The initial emergency response to a disaster is key to saving lives and accounting for the missing. The extent of the damage and the area involved (think, for example, of a hurricane) or a lack of reliable information can make these crucial initial interventions chaotic and difficult to organize[1].

Over the course of 20 years, ICMP has developed an unrivaled range of expertise in responding to large missing persons scenarios. Since 2000 it has conducted the world’s largest missing persons DNA testing program, having successfully tested more than 50,000 bone samples and established a database of almost 100,000 family reference DNA profiles to support the identification of almost 20,000 missing persons. Today, ICMP maintains a high-throughput standing capacity, available to governments throughout the world, for DNA testing from human remains.

ICMP has helped to account for the missing from disasters in every part of the world. Following the 2004 Southeast Asian Tsunami, ICMP tested more than 1,200 bone samples and issued DNA identification reports for more than 900 individuals.  In 2005, ICMP provided DNA testing of victim samples from the State of Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina. ICMP has also been involved in Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) responses in the Philippines, Haiti, Cuba, Cameroon, Namibia,  Kenya and Ukraine among others. In addition to DNA testing, ICMP delivers rapid assessment, online information sharing, training and long-term strategies to develop domestic institutions that can address the issue of missing persons in the wake of disasters[2].

In 2007, in light of lessons learned from the 2004 Tsunami regarding preparedness and DNA standing capacity, ICMP and INTERPOL formalized their DVI cooperation with an agreement that was invoked for the first time in 2008, to respond to Typhoon Frank in the Philippines. The joint effort demonstrated that the two organizations dispose of the necessary infrastructure, staff and facilities to deliver a focused, efficient and targeted multidisciplinary operation.

Since then, ICMP has been a regular participant in INTERPOL DVI Incident Response Team deployments, providing rapid assessment and recommendations following disasters, such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the Westgate Shopping Mall attack in Nairobi in 2013  and the 2014 Malaysian Airlines (MH 17) crash in Ukraine.

In September 2014 INTERPOL and ICMP signed a new agreement to manage and operate a permanent global platform centralizing DVI efforts (PDVI).

The PDVI is designed to serve as a global resource that brings together the respective operational capabilities of INTERPOL (rapid deployment, and liaison with domestic law enforcement agencies) and ICMP (secure data processing, human identification and associated forensic capacities).

Through the PDVI, adequate access to DVI assistance should become universal, enhancing existing capacities to respond to large-scale disasters effectively. One of the critical ways in which the PDVI seeks to reinforce existing capability is through the creation of a permanent capacity to deploy DVI teams with the complete range of competent expertise for primary methods of identification; DNA, fingerprints and odontology (forensic dentistry).

In the event of a large-scale disaster, multiple factors affect the identification of victims, including the length of time bodies have been exposed to the elements. DNA testing is the primary and most reliable means of identification[3]. Other means include fingerprinting and comparative dental analysis. Traditional methods include witness testimony, visual identification, and analysis of distinctive personal belongings and artefacts found on or near the body, but have shown to be highly unreliable in most circumstances. In addition to post-mortem identification, DNA can be useful in reuniting disaster victims who are unable to identify themselves, such as infants and persons suffering from medical conditions, including amnesia and Alzheimer’s.

Sample collection for DNA testing should be conducted in the least intrusive way, for example through buccal swabs or blood taken from the fingertip, and by trained personnel. Sample collection should also include the provision by donors of evidence that they are related to a missing person. In addition, donors should sign a consent form that clearly stipulates the purposes for which their personal data may be used. Blood collection should, ideally, be performed following the activation of an established national mechanism to collect and compare information.

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The 7.0 earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010 left more than 300,000 people dead. Although international aid was quickly provided, the suddenness and the scale of the catastrophe and the lack of infrastructure in the country led to a fragmented effort to locate those missing immediately after the earthquake.

An INTERPOL- ICMP assessment team arriving in Haiti immediately after the earthquake found that the Haitian Government’s initial Action Plan to deal with the catastrophe did not include a missing persons strategy. Undocumented recoveries of mortal remains in the days after the disaster were largely conducted by sanitation and construction companies, residents, police, and international military forces. The high number of casualties resulted in the burial of thousands in mass graves.

INTERPOL and ICMP recommended a five-year strategic DVI program to the Haitian authorities, but no action has ever been taken.  When Hurricane Matthew left 1.4 million people in Haiti in need of humanitarian assistance, and killed at least 1,000 in October 2016, the country was again unprepared to mount a DVI response. After several days, bodies had to be buried in mass graves to avoid the spread of cholera[4]. In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, the Interior Ministry insisted that the situation was under control. However, some public officials, including the Mayor of Les Cayes[5], the largest city in the southwest of the country, declared that after a period of weeks no accurate figure for missing and dead had been produced[6].

Haiti is just one of many developing countries that face enormous systemic challenges in addressing mass identification requirements following natural disasters. These challenges also stretch the resources of developed countries, since maintaining high-throughput DNA identification capacity requires a sophisticated scientific infrastructure and entails significant expense. This is why ICMP’s standing capacity, which can be made available to help countries, including some of the world’s poorest countries, can benefit the global community. It is a global resource that can be accessed when needed and which operates to the highest technical standards.

Some countries, Denmark is an example[7], have taken steps to ensure access to standing DNA-testing capacity as part of a national disaster-preparedness strategy. ICMP maintains a bilateral agreement with Denmark to provide DNA testing in case of a large-scale event affecting that country.

Through its DVI efforts, ICMP aims to help countries secure a higher and more comprehensive level of preparedness, better coordination in the event of a major disaster, through a centralized operational structure, a more equitable provision of DVI assistance, and cost efficiency in DNA identification and the avoidance of duplication of effort.

[1] http://bit.ly/2gaVso7

[2] http://bit.ly/2f6IWUD

[3] http://bit.ly/2aV1VAw

[4] http://reut.rs/2dZue1k

[5] http://bit.ly/2fnoL5U

[6] http://bit.ly/2erSdaO

[7] http://bit.ly/2fCbR6Y