DNA Gives Hope to Human Trafficking Victims

Neglected child

The statistics are grim. In 2013, human rights agencies estimate that as many as 29.8 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking (1), forced into debt bondage or marriage or sold as soldiers or sex workers. Many of these victims are children. Very few of them are ever identified (less than 0.2% of victims in 2013).

Most of us like to think that this sort of thing doesn’t happen in our modern world, but the recent abduction of 276 school girls in Nigeria is just more proof that it does. Human trafficking is big business, and a single Nigerian woman can command as much as $78,000 on the black market. Meanwhile, others are being bought and sold for less money than some of us spend on food in a day. Fortunately, human rights and law enforcement agencies are developing tools to combat this problem. In addition to conventional investigation methods such as surveillance, sting operations and interviews with victims and alleged perpetrators, these agencies are recruiting scientists to join this fight by implementing cutting-edge DNA-based human identification methods.

One such scientist is Associate Professor Timothy Palmbach from the University of New Haven, who participated in active, undercover investigations in Costa Rica and Nepal in 2013 in collaboration with nongovernmental organizations and government officials (2). The goal: to develop DNA-typing methods, especially rapid DNA technologies, that can be deployed on a global scale to increase arrests, prosecutions and convictions of human traffickers with the added benefit of reducing the need for victim testimony during legal proceedings. Palmbach and his team visited brothels and other establishments known to be involved in sexual exploitation to collect DNA samples from human trafficking victims. They had to get donor consent and collect the DNA samples covertly without arousing suspicion from security personnel.

These DNA samples took the form of buccal swabs, used tissues or condoms, or swabs of objects that had come into contact with the victim, such as drinking glasses or cigarette butts. Researchers collected 50 DNA samples and submitted them for rapid DNA testing using a self-contained, portable instrument that automates swab processing, DNA amplification and separation of amplified fragments. Analysis of the 19 buccal swabs yielded 95% full STR profiles and 5% partial profiles, while DNA analysis from the other 31 objects was less successful—71% generated an informative profile (23% full profiles, 42% partial profiles and 6% mixed profiles). The speed with which these STR profiles were generated (less than 90 minutes) means that DNA analysis can be performed near the site of sample collection, before perpetrators can flee to another jurisdiction. This avoids extradition issues and helps simplify and expedite legal proceedings. The simplicity of DNA sample collection and analysis means minimal training for investigators and no need for expensive laboratory space.

Overall, the prospects for employing rapid DNA testing to identify victims of human trafficking and prosecute those who exploit them are encouraging. Palmbach and his team have shown that DNA analysis can provide a new technology to fight human trafficking.

Listen to an interview with Tim Palmbach.


  1. The Global Slavery Index (2013) United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking.
  2. Palmbach, T. et al. (2014) Utilizing DNA analysis to combat the world wide plague of present day slavery – trafficking in persons. Croat. Med. J. 55, 3–8.
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Terri Sundquist

Terri has worked as a Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation for more than 13 years, and prior to that, spent more than 5 years solving problems and answering questions as a Promega Technical Services Scientist. She graduated with B.S. degrees in Chemistry and Biology at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls, then earned her M.S. in Molecular Biology from the Mayo Graduate School in Rochester Minnesota.

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