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A retired air commodore with the Indian armed forces, J.L. Bhargava remembers his first encounter with the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. It was during the 1971 India–Pakistan war, when an ICRC delegate brought letters to the prisoner-of-war (POW) camp where Bhargava was detained. “Strangely, everyone except me got at least one letter,” recalls Bhargava, who shared his story on the blog of the ICRC’s New Delhi office as part of the Movement’s MyStory project (see page 26). “So everyone got excited and all over the room they were opening the letters.
“One of the ICRC representatives asked me, ‘You didn’t get a letter?’ I said: ‘No.’ I was very perturbed. He said: ‘Next month, I will bring you a letter.’ The next month, when the mail came, I got five letters.”
More than four decades later, 72-year-old Bhargava remembers these letters and the ICRC visits vividly — a testament to the enduring value that such messages and visits bring. Though not every attempt to trace a relative or deliver a message is successful, every day people around the world are connected to loved ones thanks to the individual actions of Movement volunteers and staff.
Today, their work is backed up by an increasingly sophisticated global tracing system that endeavours to keep pace with the modern communications revolution while adapting to new challenges. One example is the Migrants in Europe project, in which 18 European National Societies and the ICRC have teamed up to help migrants search for relatives. They do so by allowing their own photographs to be posted on a website, along with a simple message such as ‘looking for my brother’ or ‘looking for my husband’ (see more at www.redcross.int).
The notion that delivering news about family members during conflict is a vital humanitarian action has been present since the Movement’s inception. Sixty years later, during the First World War, the practice took on greater proportions, when some 7 million POWs were detained and more than 20 million people were displaced. The International Prisoners-of-War Agency, set up by the ICRC 100 years ago this August, ultimately delivered more than 1.8 million parcels to POWs during that conflict.
Today, the communications revolution provides the illusion of universal connectivity. Still, millions of people fall through the cracks, particularly during conflict, natural disaster or in detention settings (where communication is often restricted).
One of our greatest challenges is how to help the growing number of migrants, many of whom are stranded in camps, prisons or host communities far from home and their network of friends and family. The Movement’s history and expertise with tracing and detention — and its worldwide network of National Societies — put it in a good position to help. Our cover story (Lost in Migration, page 4) focuses on just one example in which a National Society and the ICRC are working together to provide Restoring Family Links (RFL) services to detained migrants.
Elsewhere around the world, National Societies, the ICRC and the IFRC are engaged in local and regional efforts to assist migrants; tracing services offer an important means of reaching out to vulnerable people on the move.
But our collective response is still small compared to the vast scope of the problem. Does the Movement have the capacity and the will to scale up its RFL network to meet this challenge? A century ago, the First World War prompted a massive mobilization that laid the foundation for today’s global RFL network. What would it take to create a similar mobilization today? Send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor, Red Cross Red Crescent magazine
In August 1914, the ICRC established the International Prisoners-of-War Agency to restore contact between prisoners of war and their families — and later, between all people separated by war. Photo: ©ICRC
The first ICRC visit with prisoners of war took place at the Gardelegen camp in Germany in 1915.
Today, it is estimated that there are some 220 million migrants around the world. Many are being detained. Can the Movement’s history and expertise with tracing offer migrants an important humanitarian service in certain cases?
Photo: ©REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha