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Philippines: symposium on the management of human remains and related issues

03-03-2006 News Release

The ICRC and the Philippines Red Cross Society have organized a joint symposium in March 2006 exploring issues related to disaster victim identification.

Following the tragic mudslide disaster which occurred in the village of Guinsaugon, Southern Leyte Province on February 17, the Office of Civil Defense and departments of government, the armed forces, the Philippines National Red Cross (PNRC) and other humanitarian organisations have laboured to assist the injured and the displaced and in the hope of finding additional survivors.

To the despair of those engaged in the rescue effort and among observers around the world, the loss of human life has been overwhelming. There are few survivors and even fewer bodies identified from under the huge expanse of mud which slid down the mountainside engulfing an entire village of close to 300 houses and an elementary school. Of around 1,100 villagers, 120 have been found dead and 980 are missing, presumed to have perished.

The ICRC, in response to an urgent request received from the PNRC and in coordination with national authorities, has made available Dr. Eric Dykes, President of the Institute of Emergency Management in the United Kingdom to guide the PNRC in their support of the forensic work of the Philippine authorities. This offer followed the deployment of an ICRC field team to support the PNRC in the relief operation.

Arriving first in Manila, Dr. Dykes met with PNRC National Directors and the Department of Health Director responsible for Health Emergencies on 27 February, before travelling with an ICRC team to the Guinsaugon disaster site between 28 February and 2 March.

In all disasters, questions can be expected from the families of victims, survivors, local officials, civil society and the media related to the identification and management of mortal remains. The is sues which have been brought to the fore by the immense dimensions of the landslide are at once highly emotional, technical, and even controversial, such as that relating to the practice of establishing mass burial sites. The ICRC believes that the issues associated with disaster victim identification (DVI) deserve to be reviewed and understood, taking into account conditions on the ground, constraints, cultural and religious considerations and prevailing international standards.

On the invitation of the PNRC, 130 representatives from all of the 92 Branches of the PNRC from across the Philippine archipelago, the Departments of Health (DoH) and Interior and Local Government (DILG), National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), Philippine National Police (PNP) Crime Lab, University of Philippines College of Health, World Health Organisation (WHO) and the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) sent representatives to a symposium for'non-experts'.  Committed to proceeding in the Southern Leyte and other disaster situations in the most efficient and humanitarian manner while respecting the human dignity of survivors and those who have perished, delegates to the symposium actively explored a number of issues related to disaster victim identification, caring for families and the link with Red Cross family tracing efforts.

Following the symposium, a smaller group of 35 stakeholders participated in a planning workshop to develop policies, guidelines and standard operating procedures (SOP) relevant to DVI following disaster situations, as they have occurred in the Philippines in recent years. The workshop was designed to help both the Department of Health, the lead agency for policy development related to DVI prepare for a planned technical Needs Assessment (TNA) and inventory of capacities of key players, and the PNRC, whose tracing, disaster management and other social services compliment t hose of government authorities.