What is a humanitarian DNA database? As forensic science practitioners, we are all aware of national and regional law enforcement DNA databases, which house profiles from crime scenes, suspects and convicted offenders. As a result of migration, human trafficking and war, humanitarian databases are a relatively new concept and are often completely separate from criminal databases. Research has shown that family members may distrust government databases and be reluctant to report the missing and provide reference samples (1). Humanitarian databases are repositories of DNA profiles from reported missing persons, relative reference samples, and unknown human remains and may be managed by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), though in some instances they may be managed by a governmental institution but kept separate from criminal databases. Examples of humanitarian databases can be found in the United States (NamUs, University of North Texas HDID), Canada (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), Australia (National DNA Program for unidentified and missing persons) and internationally via the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).
At the Human Identification Symposium (HIDS) 2021, three groups presented their efforts to identify the missing using humanitarian databases and give closure to relatives.
The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) is the only international organization tasked exclusively to work on the issue of missing persons. Dr. Thomas Parsons and Dr. Alessandra La Vaccara provided insight into ICMP’s work, which is grounded on high-throughput DNA analysis and advanced technical assistance in data systems to support identification efforts of large number of missing persons. ICMP further supports families of the missing, families associations, and Non-Governmental Organizations globally to secure vitally important trust and cooperation. Their contribution highlights aspects of ICMP’s past, ongoing and future projects (e.g. Libya, Missing Migrants and Refugees, Engagement of migrant communities in Europe and capacity-building projects in Latin America and the Middle East).
Dr Bruce Budowle and Dr Magdalena Bus from The Center for Human Identification (CHI) at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, Texas, described their programs to combat human trafficking, including the development of a humanitarian database. CHI, with grants from the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) in the Department of State, is working with governments, crime laboratories, and the public in Central America in the development and capacity building of robust and sustainable forensic systems to combat human trafficking and related crime. Human trafficking is extremely serious problem plaguing all peoples with many victims hidden in plain sight. It is incumbent upon all of us to step up to reduce the negative impact of human trafficking that affects all our societies. CHI is dedicated to furthering forensic science with a particular emphasis on developing the full potential of forensic DNA and related databases, as well as other mechanisms, to improve the quality of life.
Carole Field from New South Wales (NSW) Health Pathology, Forensic & Analytical Science Service discussed the recent efforts in the state to further develop their DNA reference sample database by instituting Pop-up collection centers to give further hope to families of the missing. Ms. Field described a recent case of a sailor missing since 1979. A jawbone washed ashore in 2011 and in 2020 a familial DNA match led to the identification.
You can learn more about integrated human identification solutions and how these technologies can aid in identifying the missing.
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- Budowle, B., Bus, M.M., Josserand, M.A. et al. A standalone humanitarian DNA identification database system to increase identification of human remains of foreign nationals. Int J Legal Med 134, 2039–2044 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00414-020-02396-9