DNA v child trafficking

By Anna Sandiford 30/04/2010


2.5 million = number of people at any one time in forced labour and sexual exploitation as a result of human trafficking (International Labor Organisation/UN.GIFT).  An estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked each year.  95% of victims experience sexual or physical violence.

How to help combat this enormous problem?  DNA analysis.

As the result of an initiative started by the University of Grenada (DNA-Prokids) that has now grown and attracted a joint initiative with the University of North Texas Centre for Human Identification (UNTCHI), an international DNA testing and database system has been established to push forward the initial work started by the University of Grenada.
The idea of DNA-Prokids is to identify missing children through their DNA so that those who have been abducted or are homeless can be reunited with their biological families. The organisation is also there to provide law enforcement agencies with a scientific method to help deter child trafficking.  A 2008 pilot study involving 220 cases from Guatemala and Mexico resulted in 93 missing children being identified and returned to their families.

In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake and revelations of children being taken from the country within a few days of the incident and still being taken, the use of this internationally-driven analysis-database is very clear.  Just this year, the Spanish government offered the Haitian authorities 6,000 sampling kits and access to the skills and knowledge of DNA-Prokids to help them fight this child trafficking.  By using DNA-Prokids, the Haitian government could help reunite families and identify illegal adoptions (source: Using DNA technology to help fight the trafficking of children).

There will, of course, always be ways to abuse or subvert any system that has been set up to challenge a significant international problem like human trafficking but it seems like DNA-Prokids could be a good way to go and something has to be done to help people who can’t do it on their own.  In fact, isn’t that one of the roles of science and scientists?  It’s perhaps not a role that we set out to have when we became scientists but much of what so many of us do in our careers is to use science to help improve everyone’s lives.

I’m not a DNA expert so I can’t use my scientific skills to help with such a cause, but I know where I’d be giving some of my charity dollars. And for those of us without biological skills to help in this type of work, there are always organisations like On-call Scientists, which aims to connect “scientists interested in volunteering their skills and knowledge with human rights organizations that are in need of scientific expertise”. I have no knowledge of their work but they are currently seeking forensic scientists, psychologists, psychiatrists, medical doctors and oil pipeline experts.  If anyone knows anything about the work they’re doing, I’d be interested to hear about it.