By UN Photo/Logan Abassi United Nations Development Programme (originally posted to Flickr as Haiti Earthquake) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In January 2010 a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti left more than 300,000 people dead. The epicentre was close to the most populous city, the capital Port-au-Prince. Although international aid was quickly provided, the suddenness of the catastrophe and 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 strategy for addressing the issue of missing persons. Undocumented recoveries of mortal remains in the days after the disaster were mainly conducted by sanitation and construction companies, residents, the police, and international military forces. The high number of casualties resulted in the burial of thousands in mass graves in and around Port-au-Prince, including a municipal dump where the unclaimed bodies of the very poor had regularly been buried prior to the disaster.  In late January, press reports indicated that 80,000 to 90,000 disaster victims had been buried at this location. Other bodies were identified by visual recognition and handed over to families for burial, some were cremated while in destroyed buildings, and others were buried in small groups in local cemeteries.

Haiti lacks the technical capacity and basic resources to support a program of Disaster Victim Identification (DVI). Nor does the country have a medico-legal death investigation system or a system of forensic pathology. In addition, the potential for positive identifications to international standards is minimal due to the fact that two-thirds of the population is unregistered and there are no medical, dental or fingerprint records. DNA technology is not locally available.

In view of the absence of adequate registration or documentation, INTERPOL and ICMP recommended a five-year strategic DVI program that would require:

  • Strengthened medico-legal policies and protocols;
  • Establishment of a center for information management and identification coordination in the capital city, with regional offices throughout Haiti linked via a shared, secure and robust informatics system;
  • A comprehensive registry of missing persons including disappearance information, biological data, available medical/dental records, and fingerprints, as well as information about next-of-kin and biological family members, which meets international standards and utilizes INTERPOL DVI forms;
  • A public outreach campaign calling for two or more biological relatives per missing person who would be willing to donate a blood or mouth sample for DNA testing;
  • A sustainable strategy towards systematic excavations and recoveries, storage, and re-burial, which considers security and health and safety, and maintains chain of custody;
  • The availability of forensic facilities and laboratories, as well as specialists in the fields of forensic medicine/pathology, anthropology/archaeology, odontology, molecular biology and genetics, fingerprinting and other identification sciences;
  • Capacity for post-mortem examinations and sampling of human remains for DNA testing to international standards and using INTERPOL DVI forms;
  • Capacity for high-throughput DNA testing;
  • Computer-generated matching of ante-mortem records and post-mortem findings, as well as matching of DNA profiles of relatives of missing persons against DNA profiles from sets of human remains;
  • Repatriation services and burial assistance to families;
  • Civil society initiatives, such as awareness campaigns and public memorials;
  • Disaster preparedness plans;
  • Training and capacity building;
  • Administrative and financial support; and
  • Assessment of operational success and risk management.