Using Forensic Sciences to Restore Lost Identities

Using Forensic Sciences to Restore Lost Identities

This guest blog is by Emma Johnston, a senior lecturer in Forensic Biology at De Montfort University. With extensive experience in DNA profiling and international forensic work, she has contributed significantly to forensic science, including working with the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala on human rights investigations. Emma’s research interests include forensic biology, degraded DNA, and disaster victim identification. Emma has successfully defended completed her doctoral thesis on identifying missing migrants.

Nearly sixty-thousand people have died worldwide during migration since 2014 (IOM, 2023). This figure is a minimum estimate, as many bodies are not recovered. The true total is likely to be much higher. While this is clearly a tragedy, the problem is compounded as we do not know who most of these individuals were. Tens of thousands of families and friends around the world do not know the fate of their loved ones (ICRC, 2017), leaving them in a state of limbo, unable to properly grieve or move on with their lives.

This is a global humanitarian crisis that is going unreported, with next to nothing being done to respond to this massive problem.

By restoring identities to these individuals after their deaths, and providing answers to their families, forensic science has an important role to play. While forensic science is often associated with the criminal justice investigations related to crime and criminal acts, forensic scientists also have a proud history of responding to humanitarian challenges under the umbrella term of Humanitarian Forensic Action (HFA) (Cordner and Tidball-Binz, 2017).

Forensic techniques have been applied with great success when identify individuals following conflict or disaster, such as 9/11, the Srebrenica genocide, and the Asian Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. I undertook my doctoral research against this backdrop.

As a researcher I’ve been working on a project where forensic science is being used to discover the identity of deceased people for humanitarian purposes in Guatemala. I am curious, then, about how forensic science can be applied in this relatively unseen, yet vitally important endeavour of identifying missing migrants.

The aim of my study was to examine the role of forensic science in identifying missing migrants in Europe. I took a qualitative approach and employed a grounded theory methodology. I conducted semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders from forensic science, international organisations, academia, civil society, and policing.

The findings from my research data demonstrate that migrants are less likely to be identified than other groups of the dead or missing. This is for a number of reasons relating to the scientific methods being used, in addition to the political and social climate.

There is much ambiguity about the term ‘missing migrant’ itself.  I found that the forensic investigative context, its policies and processes, that are concerned with the identification of missing migrants in Europe, is hugely complex and fragmented. There are many actors involved across different organisations, jurisdictions, and criminal justice cultures, with a scope that goes way beyond the Europe itself. However, there is little coordination, so we don’t have a clear picture of what’s happening where, and what the different processes produce in terms of outcomes and results.

For example, there has been a reliance on the standard Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) mechanism, which is often used to identify missing migrants. This process has a strong science focus, particularly towards DNA profiling. What emerged from my research data, however, was a clear indication that this approach does not translate well to the practical experience of migrants and the different social contexts they encounter.

There are many issues that need to be resolved about the data that we collect and use relating to missing migrants. But because there is no coordinated mechanism for sharing standardised data, we are not in a position to compare situations and experiences that manifest in different places. In order to make better progress in identifying missing migrants, I have proposed that a truly interdisciplinary approach is necessary. A process that balances scientific and non-scientific data, including contextual information, which is evidence-based and can establish trust between contributors.

I have proposed, therefore, the establishment of the European Migrant Identification Centre (MIC) to coordinate efforts on the forensic identification of missing migrants in Europe.

One tension I drew from the data, which may be of interest to readers of this blog, was the relationship between identification for humanitarian purposes, and identification for criminal prosecutions. In the migrant context the humanitarian goal is to identify individuals and provide answers for their families. However, there is also a criminal justice motivation, such as successfully prosecuting people who commit cross-border people smuggling and trafficking crimes.

The actual forensic and scientific methods used in each situation do not vary, whether you are identifying deceased people for a humanitarian or for a criminal purpose. However, the two approaches can have competing requirements, specifically in ensuring that each individual is properly identified, as this will influence the data, and if not done thoroughly, will paint a false picture that will lead to bad policy making.

To complicate things further, while going missing is not necessarily a criminal act, the principal agency typically tasked with locating missing people are the police (Shalev Green et al., 2022). Therefore, anyone concerned about a missing migrant would be expected to report their disappearance to their local police force. This could be in the country of origin, or if that person had migrated themselves, in the migrant destination country.

However, many migrant communities have well-founded mistrust of law enforcement agencies, holding complex relationships and opinions about police forces and the way they handle their needs (Bradford et al., 2015). In addition, a prosecution-led approach risks criminalising the migrants and their families. In this context, the involvement of law enforcement agencies may hinder the identification efforts, as families may be reluctant to engage with officers and share vital information with them.

Furthermore, and as many people reported in my research, the current political climate in Europe is perhaps the most significant barrier to meaningful progress on the topic of the forensic identification of missing migrants. The establishment of the MIC, therefore, would require significant financial backing, resources, and co-ordination. Inevitably, any decision about where to channel funding and resources would have to correspond with, and relate to, the current political priorities of each jurisdiction, never mind the collective pan-European context.

The current political priority in Europe at this time, is driven by the imperative of preventing migrant arrivals. Unfortunately, this diverts resources from any potential project aimed at identifying the migrant dead, inhibiting the development of a better picture of what is being dealt with.

Individual forensic scientists are attempting to mitigate political resistance through their “forensic carework” (M’charek and Casartelli, 2019), but this is not enough. Without a favourable political environment around migrant deaths, we have been left with a piecemeal and fragmented approach to forensic identifications.

In the case of migrant deaths, and I hope this goes without saying, prevention is better than cure. While I make recommendations in my report for ways in which the forensic community can improve migrant identification rates, it would be better if there were no or fewer migrant deaths at all. However, that would require governments to change the policies aimed at deterring migrant arrivals in Europe in the first place, which themselves are associated with high numbers of migrant deaths.

This is a significant challenge for both policymakers and for practitioners of law enforcement and crime reduction. Sadly, however, there is no doubt that we will continue to see many migrant deaths at the borders of Europe for some time to come.

I now intend to focus on new research projects which follow on from my doctoral project. These include a European COST (Cooperation in Science and Technology) Action on the topic of Migrant Disaster Victim Identification and an ESRC funded project on trust in forensic science evidence in the criminal justice system: the experience of marginalised groups.


Bradford, B. et al. (2015) ‘A Leap of Faith? Trust in the Police Among Immigrants in England and Wales’, British Journal of Criminology, p. azv126. Available at:

Cordner, S. and Tidball-Binz, M. (2017) ‘Humanitarian forensic action — Its origins and future’, Forensic Science International, 279, pp. 65–71. Available at:

ICRC (2017) Missing migrants and their families. Recommendations to policy-makers. Geneva: International Committee of the Red Cross. Available at: (Accessed: 20 February 2018).

IOM, (2023) International Organisation for Migration Missing Migrants Project data. Available at: (Accessed: 18 July 2023)

M’charek, A. and Casartelli, S. (2019) ‘Identifying dead migrants: forensic care work and relational citizenship’, Citizenship Studies, 23(7), pp. 738–757. Available at:

Shalev Greene, K., Hayler, L. and Pritchard, D. (2022) ‘A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand: Evaluating Police Perception of UK Missing Person Definition’, European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, 28(1), pp. 1–17. Available at:

Rob Watson

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