Re-Thinking International Missing Persons DNA Databases

Sara Katsanis of Duke University describes the challenges that exist in identifying international missing persons and the steps that can be taken to design an international system to improve communication channels across borders.






I’m Sara Katsanis, and I’m an instructor at the Initiative for Science and Society at Duke University. I became involved with exploring the issues on the US/Mexico border in identification of missing migrants – people who die along the border trying to come into the US. Maybe they’ve come one time, maybe it’s multiple times, and the processes for identifying these remains are a bit convoluted, to put it simply.

It’s challenging to collect family reference samples to compare to the DNA from human remains on the US side of the border. The family reference samples may be back in their home country in Guatemala or Honduras. They may be in the United States. They may be documented in the United States. They may be undocumented in the United States. So just the missing persons reports are very complicated to enter into the law enforcement system, much less the DNA samples and who’s to collect them, and how do they get into CODIS?

And then the unidentified remains are usually processed through law enforcement, through the medical examiner’s office, but often have difficulty getting funding. And sometimes those remains are not processed at all. Sometimes, somebody crosses the border, they die on a ranch, they’re found maybe by other migrants and buried out of respect for their people. Or maybe they’re found by a ranch-hand and buried on the spot, or maybe they’re just put into a pauper’s grave by the local community and DNA is never collected from these individuals. Unfortunately, it’s a daunting task to try to unravel what the policies are and what is legal/what is required, and then how to bring in the family advocates into the process as well.


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As we know, the US/Mexico border is a microcosm to the issues that we’re seeing around the world of migrants. We have migrants dying on the way to Thailand. We have over 3,000 migrants last year dying in the Mediterranean Sea. So, this is a world-wide problem.

I’ve focused on the US/Mexico border, because I understand the US laws, and I understand how CODIS works, and if we can try to fix the communication and the data-sharing with regards to those stakeholders, perhaps we can apply some standards to other regions of the world as well.

When it comes to international missing persons, whether is mass disaster, or mass fatality, or like the crises we’re seeing in migration, there’s a strong social pull to identify the dead – identify the deceased. Especially when it’s in the news, it’s in the media, you see a deceased corpse of a young boy and people want to help. Their instinct is how can we do this?

I’ve definitely seen that in the forensic community. The government officials want to figure out how best to identify remains and solve cases. The international missing persons institutes want to fight for human rights and to resolve these cases legally so that people can be brought to justice if necessary. And then the NGO’s are fighting really hard with very limited resources for the rights of the people and the right to be identified, which I believe is a human right. It may not be stated as a human right, but I think it is a human right to be identified in death.

So that’s our starting point – that we all agree on this. That even if it’s a population that is politically undesired or many people don’t want migrants coming into the United States – and it’s a politically contentious issue. But at the same time, everyone agrees that if there’s a dead person, that person is somebody’s son or somebody’s daughter and they deserve the dignity in death, and the family deserves to know what happened to their loved ones. So, we all have that as a starting point, and that’s a really positive thing.

I feel really strongly that this is something that is needed globally, and the right solution can be developed on a small scale (like at the US/Mexico border), but the conceptualizing on how to share data when you have parties that have different interests developing those tools now at that microcosm level will be extremely valuable for the future and being able to share data across international borders through INTERPOL, through the ICMP, whatever mechanism that might be to share information. I think that we have to start small and build it, and make sure it works well, and then develop it for the rest of the world.