The International Commission on Missing Persons looks for people who have disappeared without a trace. Their relatives want most of all to know what happened to their loved ones, says the organization's Thomas Parsons.
DW: The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), which was originally formed to identify victims of the genocide in Srebrenica, looks for people who have gone missing due to war, human rights abuses and natural disasters. Why is it so important for people to find their missing loved ones?
Thomas Parsons: When people go missing their friends and relatives are devastated, no matter if it has to do with armed conflict, human rights abuses, genocide or migration. The state of uncertainty only makes the situation worse. All around the world, people have the desire to know the fate of their loved ones so they can remain close to them even in death. They also want them to have a proper burial.
Read more: What was the Srebrenica massacre?
Can anyone contact the ICMP?
We help governments fulfill their responsibilities when it comes to searching for missing persons. We also work with a number of different institutions around the world in order to help implement mechanisms that make the search for missing persons easier. Thus, we are not an investigative unit that individuals can contact. That said, one of the most important and effective aspects of ICMP's work is our online service portal, where individuals can report missing friends and relatives. After the Yugoslav wars, we unearthed some 3,000 mass graves. Ultimately, DNA analyses allowed us to identify 18,000 individuals. The online portal is very important because it allows us to find out where people have actually gone missing. It also allows us to attain crucial reference samples from relatives.
Sometimes people have been missing for many years – do reference samples such as clothing still help at that point, or is more required?
We often operate in areas where certain people are disadvantaged, or have been forced to flee their homes as a direct result of war. In those regions we rarely have access to medical or dental records, let alone fingerprints. We only go to countries when it is possible to exhume bodies, at that point we are often dealing with skeletons. Rather than asking about possessions held by the missing – which are often no longer available – we base our work on genetic samples from relatives.
Read more: Memorial project in Peru courts controversy
That means you take blood samples?
Exactly. We take blood samples from a finger or use a cotton swap to get a saliva sample. When we began our work in former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) dispatched people to the region to document war crimes. During that documentation they uncovered a number of mass graves. Some 40,000 people in the region had been thought missing. The fact that remains were suddenly there and being stored in wholly inadequate containers was often very difficult for relatives to bear. It was at that point that we at ICMP began to help in identifying victims.
Family members find some consolation in knowing what happened to their loved ones
When you say helped, does that mean you supplied the necessary technology, or that you sent forensic scientists to the individual sites?
There are a number of highly qualified forensic archaeologists and forensic anthropologists working in our science and technology department, and they provide on-site assistance. On the ground, victims remains are transported to a site where DNA tests can be conducted. When dealing with the aftermath of the Srebrenica massacre we had no idea from whom we should even take samples to help identify victims. Therefore, we took samples from everyone in the region. Our databank allowed us to make DNA comparisons – so we conducted so-called "High Certainty DNA Matches." This allowed us to return the remains of a great number of victims to their families.
How should one imagine what it is like to return a victim's remains to their family?
In former Yugoslavia, we almost always returned skeletons, or parts of skeletons.
Read more: How Ramo survived the Bosnian war
More than 60,000 people are thought to be missing in Syria. Is it even possible to work with a government in a war-ravaged nation in which so many of the missing may have been killed by their own government?
No one can travel to Syria right now – simply due to safety concerns. But of course, one needs the support of the government or the powers that hold sway. Nevertheless, it is extremely difficult to search for missing persons in regions where war is ongoing. Our searches always take place in post-conflict countries. But the experience we gained after the Yugoslav wars helps us a lot today. Our online portal allows us to document just who is missing in Syria and its neighboring countries. Our website also has a tool that allows users to mark places where they suspect mass graves may be located.
But what happens in the case of people like the Rohingya, for whom no government feels responsibility?
That is indeed difficult. In situations in which no national government is prepared to assume responsibility, one has to bring the problem to the international community and see who is willing to step up and take on that role. We work with a number of international organizations, and we also partner with Interpol. Firstly, one has to make sure that those organizations can get in touch with the people who are missing family members and loved ones. It is imperative that displaced persons have the possibility to register missing persons from the areas where they happen to be at that moment – smartphones, for instance, are a big help in such cases.
Thomas Parsons is the director of science and technology at the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) in The Hague.