Frequently asked questions about ICMP and its programs

What is ICMP and what is its mandate?

ICMP is a treaty-based international organization with headquarters in The Hague, the Netherlands. Its mandate is to secure the cooperation of governments and others in locating and identifying missing persons from conflict, human rights abuses, disasters, organized crime, irregular migration and other causes and to assist them in doing so. It is the only international organization tasked exclusively to work on the issue of missing persons. ICMP also supports the work of other organizations in their efforts, encourages public involvement in its activities and contributes to the development of appropriate expressions of commemoration and tribute to the missing.

When was ICMP founded?

ICMP was created at the 1996 G-7 Summit to address the issue of the roughly 40,000 persons missing as a consequence of the conflicts in the Western Balkans. It spearheaded an effort that made it possible to identify more than 70 percent of these victims, including 7,000 of the 8,000 who went missing at Srebrenica in July 1995. Starting in 2004, it began working globally. In 2014, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Sweden and Luxembourg signed an international agreement establishing ICMP as an intergovernmental organization with headquarters in The Hague to respond to the global challenge of missing persons. The treaty has since been signed by Chile, Cyprus, El Salvador, and Serbia and is open for accession by all states.

What are the main program activities of ICMP?

ICMP’s main program activities include engaging in all aspects of locating and identifying missing persons, from fostering institutional development and the involvement of civil society, to providing technical assistance and building institutional capacity through training programs. ICMP’s main programs are Direction & Policy, Civil Society Initiatives, Science & Technology, Data Systems & Coordination, and Corporate Services. In addition, ICMP maintains a range of country programs, the largest of which relate to the Western Balkans, Iraq and Syria, and it is engaged in thematic programs related to Missing Migrants and Refugees, Disaster Victim Identification, Justice Sector Assistance, the Center for Excellence and Training, the Inter-Agency Committee on Missing Persons, and the Global Forum on Missing Persons.

Where is ICMP working?

ICMP operates in diverse social, political and cultural environments and has been active in some 40 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas, that have faced large numbers of missing persons as a result of natural and man-made disasters, wars, widespread human rights abuses, organized crime and other causes.

What is the difference between ICMP and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)?

ICMP is an international organization tasked exclusively to cooperate with governments and others to locate and identify missing persons. The ICTY was an international legal mechanism that dealt with war crimes that took place during the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s.

Who funds ICMP?

ICMP is donor-funded. Donations are made exclusively on a voluntary basis. Financial contributions are provided principally by governments and multilateral organizations, though ICMP has also been funded and supported by foundations, corporations and individuals. ICMP is continuously working to develop its donor base.

How does the DNA identification process work at the ICMP DNA Laboratory?

The ICMP DNA Laboratory is the world’s largest and most successful missing persons DNA laboratory, having contributed to the identification of around 20,000 persons worldwide. ICMP’s DNA identification laboratory system is capable of handling large numbers of cases from any type of missing persons event, including post-conflict mass graves, genocide, mass disaster, human trafficking and terrorism.

In the ICMP laboratory system a “DNA profile” is extracted from the remains of unidentified deceased missing persons, for instance a piece of bone, tooth or hair. This profile is then compared, in a secure database, to DNA profiles from family members of the missing in order to find matches.

Why does ICMP not work in Africa?

ICMP recognizes major areas in Africa, including countries in Central Africa, where the issue of missing persons is acute. ICMP stands ready to work with authorities in Africa and has sought funding for programs there. In the absence of adequate funding it has not yet been possible to launch major programs in Africa. However, ICMP has been engaged on specific incidents and issues. For example, ICMP provided assistance in 2007 after the crash of Kenya Airways Flight 507 at Douala International Airport in Cameroon. It also provided assistance to the authorities in Kenya after the 2013 attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi.

Does accounting for the missing have a positive or a negative impact on countries recovering from trauma (eg war or natural disaster)?

Accounting for the missing is a crucial component of any post-conflict or post-disaster recovery effort. It is a key element in sustaining reconciliation and stability. Governments are obliged under domestic and international law to seek to establish the whereabouts of missing persons and to investigate the circumstances of their disappearance. Families of the missing have the right to the truth, justice and reparations.

Missing Migrants Program

What is the scale of the Missing Migrants issue?

More than 3,000 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2017; more than 2,000 died in the first ten months of 2018. From the beginning of 2014 until October 2018, nearly 17,000 migrants died on the Mediterranean route, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

One in every 14 people died in the first quarter of 2018 crossing from Libya to Italy, compared to one in 29 people for the same period in 2017, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

In October 2017, the IOM indicated the likelihood that the number of migrants dying en route from Sub Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean coast was at least double the number who were drowned during the actual crossing.

In 2017, more than 17,000 unaccompanied children reached Europe. Most of these children arrived by sea to Italy, where 13 percent of all arrivals were children traveling on their own, a similar trend to 2016.

The issue concerns those who have died and those who have disappeared but who may still be alive.

European governments have reported that migrants, and especially child migrants, have disappeared in significant numbers after their arrival in host countries.

What is ICMP doing to address the issue of missing migrants?

In line with its mandate, ICMP is enhancing cooperative efforts to account for migrants who have gone missing or have died. At ICMP’s invitation, representatives of Mediterranean states met in Rome on 11 June 2018 to launch a Joint Process to enhance domestic capabilities and cooperation among these states. Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Malta are taking part in the Joint Process, and participation from other European states, as well as of countries of origin is being sought. The immediate objective is to understand the extent of the problem and whether resources and capacities are in place to address it. To this end, ICMP is assessing investigatory capacities, including forensic and data system capacities, procedures to locate missing migrants and/or identify their mortal remains, and modalities for repatriating the remains of deceased migrants. The result of this assessment will be the proposal of a set of measures to redress possible gaps in domestic capacity.

ICMP is also seeking to raise awareness on the issue by giving survivors a voice. On 11 June 2018, ICMP co-organized a “Profiles of the Missing” event in Rome together with the Government of Switzerland. Migrant survivors provided first-hand testimony of their experience, and policymakers discussed steps that can be taken to address the issue of missing migrants.

How does ICMP address the gender dimension of the issue of missing migrants?

ICMP takes a proactive approach to the circumstances faced by women and children who are left behind following disappearances. Across the full range of scenarios in which people go missing, including migration, ICMP implements programs to improve the support available to female-headed households, and provides learning and development programs that can help women to advocate effectively for their rights to justice, truth and social and economic benefits. By engaging with female leaders it is possible to ensure that the approach of governments meets the specific needs and rights of survivors.

Why is ICMP addressing the issue of missing migrants? 

Efforts to address the issue and provide support for families who are left behind are severely hampered by a lack of basic information.

The bodies of deceased migrants are often not found, and if they are found, identification is in many cases difficult since irregular migrants by necessity often travel without documents and their families may not report them missing.

Likewise, migrants who are afraid of criminal proceedings or deportation may intentionally seek to avoid registration – which makes them more vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation and prevents them from receiving assistance and protection to which they are legally entitled.

The approach of national authorities varies.

An increasing number of databases place data about migration and missing migrants in silos, many of which are isolated and accessible only by a small number of individuals and agencies.

Why should states allocate scarce resources to account for missing migrants?

Under international law, States are legally obliged to investigate the fate and whereabouts of missing persons in an effective way, including the circumstances of their disappearance. In Europe, these rights are guaranteed, inter alia, under Articles 2 (right to life) and 3 (prohibition of torture) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Failure to investigate the fate of the missing, publicly, officially and transparently, threatens to legitimize the application of variable standards, based on group characteristics.

The absence or death of a parent/spouse is often used as a pretext to deprive family members of their human rights, including their economic, social, and cultural rights (e.g. withholding inheritance, or denying support in regard to the provision of health care and education).

Who is funding ICMP’s Missing Migrants Program?

ICMP’s Missing Migrants Program has been funded through a US$ 400,000 grant from the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland. This grant, made in December 2017, enabled ICMP to launch the missing migrants initiative in 2018.

ICMP is implementing a program funded by the European Union (EU) to collect data on missing persons from Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. Outcomes will be used to improve migration-related missing persons investigations in Europe as the program provides a direct link to a large migrant and refugee population, and data collected will facilitate investigating the fate of persons who went missing attempting to cross into Europe.

What is the origin of ICMP’s Missing Migrants Program?

In January 2016, together with the United Kingdom mission to the United Nations, ICMP brought together senior diplomats and experts at the UN Security Council to discuss core aspects of the global missing persons problem, including persons missing in the context of migration.

In May 2016, ICMP and the Italian Government’s Special Commissioner for Missing Persons signed a Cooperation Agreement under which ICMP and the Italian authorities are committed to working together to improve the procedure for identifying migrants who have drowned in the Mediterranean.

ICMP conducted Inter-Agency roundtable meetings at its Headquarters in The Hague, on 9 December 2016 concerning data processing capabilities, and on 18 December 2017 concerning support by international organizations to Mediterranean countries confronting the issue of missing and deceased migrants. A third Inter-Agency roundtable was held in Rome on 11 June 2018, focused on implementing a Joint Process to address the missing migrants issue in the Mediterranean. IOM, the International Criminal Police Organization, the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, the International Criminal Court, the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNHCR, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the European Union’s Judicial Cooperation Unit, the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes, and the Delegation of the European Union in The Hague participated in one or more of these roundtables.

In April 2017, ICMP launched an EU-funded program to collect data on missing persons from Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, which, among other things, produced information and suggested operating procedures that could help to improve migration-related missing persons investigations in Europe.

Western Balkans

What is ICMP’s role in accounting for the missing in the Western Balkans?

In the Western Balkans ICMP has supported regional cooperation in the search for the missing; it has worked effectively to foster the development and cooperation of civil society organizations with one another and with governments and local authorities in the region. ICMP pioneered the application of state-of-the-art DNA and advanced database informatics to locate and identify large numbers of missing persons. To date, more than 70 percent of the estimated 40,000 persons reported missing at the end of the fighting in the Western Balkans have been accounted for.

In August 2014, reflecting the unprecedented achievements in this region, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro were the first countries to sign the ICMP Declaration on the Responsibility of States in Accounting for Missing Persons from Armed Conflict and Human Rights Abuses.

What is ICMP’s role in accounting for the missing in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

For more than 20 years, ICMP has spearheaded the effort that has made it possible to account for more than 70 percent of the estimated 31,000 people who were missing at the end of the conflict. This rate of identification has not been equaled anywhere else in the world.

ICMP has played a key role in helping to develop Bosnia and Herzegovina’s institutional capacity to address the issue of missing persons in a way that does not discriminate on the basis of an indivdual’s ethnic or religious or communal affiliation or role in the conflict. ICMP is a co-founder, with the BIH Council of Ministers, of the Missing Persons Institute. ICMP has crafted legislation, including the 2004 Law on Missing Persons, to safeguard the rights of families, applied systematic and successful forensic methods – including DNA – and upheld a rule-of-law approach that has made it possible to provide evidence to domestic courts and the ICTY. Throughout the process, ICMP has consistently championed the active engagement of families of the missing.

Why did ICMP move it’s laboratory system from BIH to the Netherlands?

ICMP moved its laboratory system to The Netherlands, through a year-long transition that was completed at the beginning of 2018, after its Headquarters as a treaty-based international organization were established in The Hague in 2015. Co-locating the laboratory system with Headquarters clearly makes administrative sense. Transporting genetic samples to and from the Netherlands, which is a major international hub, facilitates ICMP’s global operations. The vibrant Science & Technology community in The Hague, where ICMP has partnerships with organizations such as the Netherlands Forensic Institute, makes this the optimal location for ICMP’s Center for Excellence and Training, which is a key component of the laboratory system. At the same time, ICMP’s host-state agreement with the Netherlands ensures that it can guarantee the absolute security of all personal data that is provided to it, precluding the possibility of interference from governments or other parties.

Has the process of sending bone samples to The Hague been slower or more expensive for Bosnia and Herzegovina?

ICMP’s transition has not impeded its assistance to BIH. It has augmented the ability to provide state-of-the-art DNA-based identifications, which continues to be at no cost to BIH. ICMP maintains a Western Balkans regional office in BIH, which continues to store samples from the region and provide other types of technical assistance as before. ICMP’s assistance in DNA testing is voluntarily funded and BIH does not pay for DNA testing. ICMP has secured funding from donors to ensure that BIH retains access to ICMP’s DNA testing and matching in the coming years and will continue to make every effort to raise funds for activities in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

What did ICMP take away from BIH when it moved its laboratory system to The Hague?

ICMP has not taken anything away from BIH. ICMP continues to provide assistance as in the past. The ICMP laboratory continues to process samples as it has always done and data is shared with the relevant authorities in the same way that it has always been shared. All BIH ante-mortem and post-mortem samples that have already been processed by ICMP remain in BIH.

How does ICMP protect personal data of BIH citizens from abuse?

ICMP’s regional office in BIH continues to store samples from the region and provide other types of technical assistance as before. The same ICMP Standard Operating Procedures and the highest data protection measures continue to be applied. All BIH ante-mortem and post-mortem samples that have already been processed by ICMP remain in BIH. ICMP only uses data for the purpose for which the data was provided, ie, the identification of the missing, or, if consent is given by families of the missing, for use in criminal trials. Data provided to ICMP is protected under ICMP’s international diplomaic immunities and privileges, which means that it cannot be expropriated or misused by government authorities or other agencies.

Will the laboratory transition help to make identifications more efficient?

ICMP’s laboratory in The Hague is able to apply new technologies, such as Massively Parallel Sequencing, that enable it to make identifications in cases that were previously impossible, including highly damaged samples or when only one family member provides a reference sample. This increases the possibility of making new identifications.

What are the most pressing issues that BIH needs to resolve in the process of accounting for the missing?

The authorities need to implement the Law on Missing Persons fully so as to secure the rights of all families – including establishing the Fund for Families of the Missing. The Council of Ministers needs to amend the Missing Persons Institute (MPI) Co-Founders Agreement so that Bosnia and Herzegovina takes full responsibility for the missing persons process and the operations of the MPI are streamlined and made more efficient. Bosnia and Herzegovina must continue to work in line with the ICMP Declaration, signed in 2014.

What is the status of cooperation between ICMP and the BiH Missing Persons Institute?

ICMP works closely with the MPI and with the relevant BIH authorities to help the MPI carry out its responsibilities.

ICMP continues to assist the MPI with
– DNA testing and matching
– Technical assistance at excavations and in mortuaries
– Reference sample collection
– Access to data on ICMP’s data systems

How many Srebrenica victims has ICMP been able to identify and how many remain unidentified?

The estimated number of persons missing as a result of the fall of the Srebrenica and Žepa UN Safe Areas in July 1995 is approximately 8,000; around 7,000 have been identified using DNA analysis.

What is the biggest obstacle in the process of accounting for the missing in BIH?

The biggest obstacle is a lack of credible information about new clandestine mass graves and individual graves. There is also the length of time between locating a gravesite and the BIH Prosecutor’s Office obtaining a court order to excavate the site. Often there is also a significant lapse of time between the court order being issued and the excavation itself actually taking place.