DNA and the Issue of Trafficked Children


By Bojana Djokanovic

ICMP was invited to participate and share expertise at a film screening and discussion organized in Washington on 8 December by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The event focused on the use of DNA in identifying migration-related enforced disappearances. The film shown was a documentary on the trafficking of migrant children from South America, “The Living Disappeared” directed by Alexa Barrett.  ICMP Forensic Sciences Director Thomas Parsons was a member of the discussion panel after the film screening.

“The Living Disappeared” gives a first-hand account of trafficking, from people who migrated as children, who were victims of kidnappers or smugglers, and who made the journey across the desert. It depicts the human side of the complex problem of identifying the dead and preventing human trafficking.

The film also describes the push factors within countries of origin that cause persons to migrate and often put their children’s lives in the hands of smugglers. These push factors include armed conflict, gang violence, crime, corruption and an overall absence of the rule of law. Enduring such conditions, sometimes for decades, families finally opt for perilous migration routes where crime and danger are ever-present until they cross to safety. Many never make that final crossing and disappear along the way.

Human trafficking is lucrative. According to a Trafficking in Persons in Latin America and the Caribbean report, the region serves as “source, transit, and destination” for trafficking victims. “Men, women, and children are victimized within their own countries, as well as trafficked to other countries in the region. Latin America is also a primary source region for people trafficked to the United States, increasingly by transnational criminal organizations.”[1]

When migrant children are trafficked and disappeared, the search for the missing is made harder for a number of reasons. The families are left with no information on the fate of the disappeared, and they may be unwilling, for a variety of reasons including fear, insecurity and distrust, to report the disappearance and provide genetic and other types of information that could be of crucial for search and identification purposes.

The “Living Disappeared” highlights the prospects of establishing database programs involving the use of DNA to help find and identify cross-border missing, including children who are alive but separated from their families. As Dr. Parsons explained, DNA testing can recover the identity of bodies very effectively as long as there are family members to provide genetic profiles for comparison. DNA identification works even in the absence of much case specific investigation, and over long periods of time, Dr. Parsons said.  “Blind matching” permits DNA profiles from either families or human remains to reside in databases, ready to find an instantaneous match whenever profiles from “both sides of the equation” (families or remains) come to be uploaded to the database.

Dr. Parsons noted that human remains recovered even many years after death can provide DNA profiles for an identification system. “However, the system needs to be centralized, and needs to span borders.  Families in whatever country must have effective mechanisms for registering their missing and providing their genetic reference samples.  These database systems must permit participation without risk or legal compromise to the participants.  Data security must be assured.”

ICMP has well-established programs that focus on developing institutional, legal and technical capacities, encouraging the active participation of civil society, and providing assistance to judicial institutions – and it maintains a standing capacity to provide forensic assistance, including high-throughput DNA identifications, and a custom-designed Integrated Database Management System (iDMS).

Dr. Parsons noted that in the case of South American trafficked children, while political, ethical and security issues are involved in, the use of modern scientific approaches and data protection policies can have a huge impact on reducing the number of migrant children who go missing.

Migrations and refugee flows are an increasing global phenomenon, affecting the Mediterranean, Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. They represent a humanitarian disaster and a fundamental challenge to the global rule of law. While many governments have resorted to strengthening border controls, an effective response will only be possible through a combination of social, political and scientific strategies combined with cross-border cooperation.

[1] https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33200.pdf