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Humanitarian and Missing Persons DNA Databases

DNA databases are becoming an increasing popular tool in missing persons cases. These databases can be used not only to identify human remains but also missing persons who are being trafficked or who lost their identity at a younger age. Generally, the databases are composed of three types of DNA profiles: (1) unidentified human remains; (2) relatives of missing persons provided voluntarily; and (3) missing persons when the sample was derived from their personal belongings.

CANADA: Established in 2018, Canada’s National Missing Persons DNA Program (NMPDP), recently reached a significant milestone: 50 missing persons cases solved. There are currently over 8,000 open missing persons and 760 unidentified human remains cases in Canada, which the program intends to help solve (see National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains). Canada’s NMPDP collects DNA profiles of missing persons from three places: (1) personal effects, (2) DNA profiles voluntarily submitted by family members of missing persons, and (3) DNA profiles from unidentified human remains (NCMPUR). It will then use these databases concurrently to attempt to find matches. The most recent case identified a male from the City of Niagara Falls, who was reported missing by his family in 2011, by comparing DNA from a femur bone found during construction to DNA provided by the individual's deceased mother.

USA: The United States’ National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS) is one of the most well-established missing persons databases. While it does not store DNA profiles itself, it keeps a record of whether a DNA profile does exist in the U.S. DNA databasing system. The U.S. has utilized DNA to help solve missing persons cases since the early 1990s. Over 600,000 individuals go missing every year in the U.S., and over 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered every year (NamUS). While maintaining transparent practices and personal privacy protections, the U.S. uses DNA profiles of missing persons and DNA profiles of their families to assist in the search and identification process. These profiles are placed in NDIS, where identifying information is stored, and in CODIS, where the DNA sample is stored, but cannot be compared with criminal databases.

AUSTRALIA: Australia has a similar program called the National DNA Program for Unidentified and Missing Persons, as there are approximately 850 unidentified human remains and 2,600 long term missing persons in the country. Utilization of the missing persons database is often a last resort for Australian authorities, who generally first attempt to create a biological profile and compare dental records of human remains to “long-term” missing persons. Families of missing persons typically only provide DNA on a limited, case-by-case basis. However, in specific situations where there are no obvious leads to identify unidentified remains, the National DNA Program will use DNA phenotyping to reconstruct a theoretical facial structure and coloring of the deceased. This technique has been used effectively, however opponents argue that DNA phenotyping has the potential to be skewed by social prejudices.

EUROPE: I-Familia, the first global missing person’s program, was launched in 2021 by INTERPOL. I-Familia is comprised of three sections: (1) a global DNA database of missing persons relatives, held separately from any criminal data; (2) the DNA matching software, Bonaparte; and (3) interpretation guidelines, produced by INTERPOL, to efficiently identify and report any potential matches. I-Familia is the first global database to automatically control for differences in percentages of DNA shared between biological relatives without requiring knowledge of the missing person’s genetic ancestry. This can greatly simplify the matching process.

CENTRAL AMERICA: Countries in Central America are working to develop forensic DNA databases to identify the missing. The U.S.-sponsored project, id-ADN: Reuniendo Familias, is currently working with both government and non-government organizations in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama to develop humanitarian DNA databases and family reference sample collections. These databases and collections will be reliant on voluntary submission of DNA. They will be used by authorities to assist human identification efforts in cases of irregular migration, human trafficking, natural disasters, organized crime, and phenomena that displace people throughout Latin America.


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