Following meetings in Manila earlier this year between Philippine government officials and senior ICMP staff, two DNA scientists from the Philippine National Police (PNP) completed five weeks of training at ICMP’s facilities in Bosnia and Herzegovina in September and October.
The Philippines, one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries, suffers from devastating typhoons. Although its disaster-response capacity is substantial – Philippines medical teams were dispatched to Thailand and Indonesia to offer assistance in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami – identification of missing persons is complicated by administrative factors. Among other things, DNA evidence has not been fully integrated in the country’s judicial process, which means that a key element in an effective system of identifying missing persons – resolving legal status – is not yet in place.
“We are working case by case, but in a mass disaster situation you have a very different system,” said Chief Inspector Lorna Santos of the PNP DNA Analysis Branch Crime Laboratory in Quezon City. She noted that following Hurricane Haiyan, biological samples were taken for identification purposes from around 2,000 mortal remains, but thousands more were buried in mass graves. These remains were interred in properly tagged body bags, leaving a substantial backlog of cases that could be resolved through a comprehensive DNA matching program.
Chief Inspector Santos also pointed out that in the Philippines, although there is no national identity card, large numbers of individuals are issued with voter ID through government efforts, while state employees and members of the armed forces carry ID cards issued by their government employers. She added that dental records cover only a small proportion of Filipinos, reducing the usefulness of such records in identifying human remains.
“The focus in the Philippines is on strengthening disaster response,” said Chief Inspector Jasper Magana, also of the Crime Laboratory. “Regarding DNA, this visit here been very informative. We can adapt the system to identify large numbers of bodies. Currently, the focus of the government is to prepare for the Big One – a major earthquake.” Seismologists believe that a major earthquake may be overdue and that such an event is likely to impact the most populous part of the country.
The two Philippines scientists observed workflow at ICMP’s laboratories in Tuzla, Banja Luka and Sarajevo. They were briefed on the Integrated Data Management System (iDMS), a dedicated software program developed by ICMP to enable large numbers of DNA samples from human remains to be matched with DNA from blood samples supplied by families of the missing. They were also briefed on ICMP’s Online Inquiry Center, which seeks to make the iDMS and other ICMP forensic tools accessible from anywhere in the world.
In addition to studying ICMP forensic archaeology and anthropology techniques, they learned about ICMP’s approach to management of post-mortem and blood samples, chain of custody and data entry and associated documentation.
With a standing capacity to process 10,000 DNA profiles per year, ICMP has been able to help governments to account for around 20,000 missing persons worldwide, and it has successfully applied DNA-identification techniques in the wake of major typhoons in the Philippines. In coordination with INTERPOL and other agencies, ICMP worked with the Philippines authorities in the aftermath of Typhoon Frank in 2008 and Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. After Typhoon Haiyan, ICMP recommended preparation of a long-term missing persons strategy in The Philippines.