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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 October 2018

Activists seek US help identifying dead migrants

Thousands of migrants remain unidentified, years after their bodies were recovered.

Attendees hold up placards bearing the photographs of people who went missing while trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States during a hearing held by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. AP
Attendees hold up placards bearing the photographs of people who went missing while trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States during a hearing held by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. AP

Human rights advocates on Friday pushed the US government for access to an FBI-run DNA database to help identify the remains of thousands of immigrants who have disappeared on the U.S.-Mexico border in the past two decades.

US officials pledged to continue talks on identifying immigrants' remains, but said they were limited by US law on what information they could share from the database.

The comments came at a hearing in Boulder, Colorado, of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), part of the Organisation of American States.

The Forensic Border Coalition (FBC), a group of US and Latin American forensic scientists and academics, sought the hearing after what it said were six fruitless years of talks with US officials.

The FBC wants to carry out comparisons of thousands of DNA samples its members have taken from missing migrants' relatives with DNA held in the National DNA Index System (NDIS) database.

"There is no legal or technical reason that justifies the United States' refusal to conduct a large-scale comparison," said Roxanna Altholz, a clinical professor at the University of California, Berkeley Law School and FBC member.

US Border Patrol statistics indicate since the late 1990s nearly 7,000 deceased migrants have been found on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico, most of them in harsh desert terrain.

Over 2,500 people are still missing and hundreds of recovered remains are unidentified in medical examiner's offices, morgues and cemeteries, the FBC said.

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Read more:

Hundreds of children in limbo as US races to reunite immigrant families

Family separation protests flood US cities

Migrants dying from heat on US-Mexico border rises by half in nine months

Trump says illegal immigrants should be deported with ‘no judges or court cases’

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Among the obstacles in getting access to the NDIS are requirements that all DNA samples submitted to the database be taken in the presence of law enforcement and only law enforcement may access its information.

Families of many missing migrants are reluctant to approach law enforcement because of their own legal status or because of distrust of police and other authorities and instead seek help through advocacy groups, the FBC said. Paula Wolff, a lawyer representing the FBI, said her agency was committed to finding a solution to an issue she described as "extremely devastating" for relatives.

"I don't think we have any disagreement on the 'what' must be done, the only issues are working on how it is to be accomplished," Wolff said.

Relatives of the missing said access to NDIS could end decades of pain not knowing the fate of loved ones.

"I am here today to beg for your support. I have already given DNA," said Irma Carrillo, a native of Mexico and mother of children aged 24 and 27 who went missing crossing the border in Arizona.