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A simple message in a brave new world


140 years after the ICRC founded the Central Tracing Agency, new technology poses both challenges and opportunities for Movement efforts to reconnect families separated by conflict, natural disaster and migration.

Its genius lies in its simplicity. The Red Cross Message, delivered to millions of detainees and others separated by conflict since its first use during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s, has provided a vital humanitarian service through two world wars and countless other conflicts. But as the world develops and embraces ever more sophisticated communications technology, could the Red Cross message and, by extension, other Red Cross tracing services become less relevant?

With over 1.2 billion users at the end of 2013, Facebook offers a place to turn to when searching for a missing relative while Google Person Finder specifically seeks to reconnect people following natural and man-made disasters. With cell-phones and smart phones commonplace around the world, it’s no wonder that the traditional Red Cross message is being used less frequently.

A 2012 article in the International Review of the Red Cross, entitled “New technologies and new policies: the ICRC’s evolving approach to working with separated families”, reports that the use of Red Cross messages has steadily declined since 2002. The exception to that trend are places of detention, where the authorities’ need for easily-monitored communications via a trusted neutral source has kept the Red Cross Message in relatively consistent use.

With all this in mind, the Movement is working to adapt and keep up, both with technological fixes aimed at meeting today’s expectations for speed and efficiency, and by emphasizing more time-honoured principles such as protection and confidentiality that have been at the core of tracing and protection services since the beginning.

Keeping up in the internet age

“Technology has always been an important part of ICRC’s Tracing Services,” notes Romain Bircher, the head of the ICRC Protection Data Unit, noting for example that early computing systems developed by IBM helped the Central Tracing Agency keep track of millions of tracing requests generated during World War II.

However, because of its unique humanitarian mandate, the ICRC must move more cautiously than private social media platforms and search engines when embracing new technologies. One of the key challenges for the Movement is how to more efficiently share information, while at the same time ensuring the security of the system— something essential particularly regarding detention case files.

The ICRC has recently taken a big step forward by upgrading its internal database for tracking cases so that the processing and sharing of information is easier and more efficient between a wider range of secured users around the world.

Until now, delegates or protection officers had to search multiple databases and documents to get a full picture of a particular case or tracing request. The hope is that the new database, known as PROT 6, will allow users  to more quickly connect the dots in cases where people are searching for loved ones who are, for example, held in detention.

In parallel, the ICRC is also providing National Societies with a case management system, called Familylinks Answers, which is adapted to their specific needs, but based upon the same approach and technology.

“Now,” adds Bircher, “a delegate has 90 per cent of information needed in the same database. There is a common capacity in managing cases with National Societies for the first time, and it brings a consistency, a logic, to the cases.”

Migrants in Europe

While PROT 6 might help delegates work more efficiently behind the scenes, the ICRC is also exploring new ways to use its existing public web presence more creatively. Since upgrading its Restoring Family Links website in 2012 ( to allow beneficiaries to more easily search for missing family members, the ICRC has worked closely with National Societies to use its internet presence more proactively.

One recent example is Migrants in Europe (MiE) project, in which 20 European National Societies and the ICRC are collaborating in order to help migrants find family members who they lost touch with during their journey to Europe.

Piloted since September 2013 by the Swiss and Austrian Red Cross together with the ICRC, the project operates on a straightforward principle: that of publishing photographs on physical posters and on the internet. But because of data protection legislation, the decision was taken not to publish personal information of anyone else without permission – even a family member..

So, explains Marc Studer, ICRC’s RFL project manager, the idea was turned on its head. Instead, MiE publishes photos of those seeking loved ones. These photos, with just a reference number and an indication of the relative they are seeking — brother, husband, daughter and so on — are published on a poster that contains eight photos in total, and separately on the MiE website. A new poster is published each month and hung in Red Cross offices, NGO offices, refugee centres and the like. The list of places where the posters can be found is also available on the MiE website.

All photographs are watermarked — there are currently 153 — which further ensures the protection of the seeker, as does the fact that the image does not appear in search engine rankings. If the sought individual recognizes the family member, all they have to do is fill in an online form, which is sent to the relevant National Society.

Amira’s story

So far, since September 2013, there have been two positive matches. For one of them, the story began that first month, when the head of the Swiss Red Cross's tracing service, Jeanne Rüsch, was contacted by a refugee-reception centre. Amira*, an Afghan refugee recently arrived at the centre with her two daughters, was desperately seeking news of her husband Zabilhulla* and two sons.

The family had fled Afghanistan into Iran and then Turkey. Traffickers brought them to the Evros River — the border between Turkey and Greece — and loaded them with other refugees into rubber boats. At that point the family was separated – with mother and daughters on one boat, father and sons on another.

“On the way across — at night — the water was rough and the boat with the father and boys capsized,” says Rüsch. “Amira made it to the other side with the two girls, and the traffickers pushed her and her daughters into a truck along with other refugees.”

Eventually, Amira found herself in Switzerland. Her husband and the two boys made it back to the Turkish shore and ended up in Istanbul. Finally, five months later, in March 2014, he saw his wife’s photo on the ICRC website and, not long after, they could restore contact.

A work in progress

Both ICRC and national societies see the website as a work in progress. The number of people who use the service, and who have had success, is still relatively small and just 15 per cent of users return to look at the website once they have accessed it for the first time. This is one reason Studer’s team is looking into developing an alert system that notifies users when a new picture is published.

But it doesn’t stop there. The ICRC is currently devising a system that will make self-registration following a disaster more easy for beneficiaries and will allow details to be amended once initial registration has taken place. In addition, a database-tracing template is being designed for countries at high risk of natural disaster, so that local teams are ready to register beneficiaries the moment a crisis strikes.

These new developments are designed to complement existing services, not replace them. In many parts of the world, where cell-phones and internet access are not available, the traditional, paper Red Cross Message is still the only option. Sometimes, beneficiaries fill out a Red Cross Message which is later scanned and sent by email to the relevant National Society, sometimes on the other side of the globe.

Indeed, it’s the Movement’s ability and motivation to seek out disaster victims who are far from, or cut off from, the grid — specifically to bring them food, water, Red Cross Messages or satellite phones — that will prove the continued relevance of RFL.

After all, even in peaceful times, there are still significant technological gaps: most people in the world do not have internet or cell-phone connections and during crisis, these gaps only widen. People are often forced to flee in haste; they may lose phones and phone numbers and, often, cell networks and electrical systems go down for some time following an emergency.

Trust and technology

Whatever and however new technology is applied to RFL in the future, the most essential element behind Movement tracing services hasn’t changed in 100 years. It’s the element of trust. In order for tracing services to truly help the most vulnerable, people need to know the tracing services they are using are being offered solely for humanitarian purposes.

With privately owned internet search engines and social media sites, there are few guarantees of safety and privacy for those concerned about the protection of their personal data. With some internet search services, users have little or no control over the information that is posted about them, while others can add any information they want, even to delete it.

Someday, the omnipresence of communications technology may make the Movement’s Red Cross Message and other specific communication means obsolete. And that may not be a bad thing.  After all, shouldn’t any humanitarian organization hope that their services might someday no longer be needed? However, given the current state of technology, the numerous humanitarian challenges facing the world today and the need to provide a wide range of humanitarian services to missing persons and their families, that day is still a long way off.

By Robert Bartram
Robert Bartram is a freelance journalist and communicator based in Geneva, Switzerland
*Names have been changed for their protection.















Eventually, Amira found herself in Switzerland. Her husband and the two boys made it back to the Turkish shore and ended up in Istanbul. Finally, five months later, in March 2014, he saw his wife’s photo on the Restoring Family Links website and, not long after, they could restore contact.


















The Migrants in Europe project publishes photos of those seeking loved ones. These photos, with just a reference number and an indication of the relative they are seeking — brother, husband, daughter and so on — are published on a poster that contains eight photos in total, and separately on the Migrants in Europe website.




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