Back to Magazine


Lost in migration


One hundred years after the Movement established the Central Tracing Agency and the Inter-national Prisoners-of-War Agency, migration poses new challenges and options for Movement efforts to reconnect families and protect migrant detainees.

There isn’t much to do in an immigration detention centre (IDC) except wait. Day in, day out, with no pens, paper, books or contact with the outside world, the only thing the 1,564 detainees in the Lenggeng IDC can do is wait and hope that someone will help to get them home.

The Lenggeng IDC sits on a hill in a remote and picturesque jungle area, south of Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. Here, amid the deceptively pretty bougainvillea and mango trees, sit hundreds of frustrated and anxious men and women from countries such as India, Iran, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Palestine and Uganda. They speak many different languages and have different stories but most are united in a common desire to go home and see their families.

“I was promised a good job in Malaysia,” says Catherine,* one of some 250 women migrants detained in the centre. “I thought it would mean a better life and more money for my mother and child.

“About two months after I arrived, the authorities raided my house and arrested me for not having valid work papers,” says Catherine, originally from Kampala, Uganda. “I don’t have any money to pay for my ticket home so for almost a year I have been waiting here in detention, hoping and praying that someone will help and I can leave soon.

“Today I was able to write my first Red Cross message (RCM) to my mother, which has given me some hope. I have been able to make one phone call to her but my credit ran out and I can’t afford to buy another card, so hopefully this message will reach her and she will know that I am OK.”

The message that Catherine was able to send home comes thanks to a joint pilot project, which began almost three years ago, between the Malaysian Red Crescent Society and the ICRC that has brought Restoring Family Links (RFL) services for detained migrants in the Lenggeng IDC.

“The people in Malaysia’s IDCs come from many different countries,” explains Lim Mei Chin, the Malaysian Red Crescent’s RFL officer. “More recently, there has been a rise in the number of people from Rakhine state in Myanmar.”

During the RFL officers’ visits, the detainees are able to write Red Cross messages to their families or provide telephone numbers so that the Malaysian Red Crescent Society, other National Societies or ICRC delegations can deliver short oral messages to relatives over the phone. However, unlike traditional salamat or “I am alive” messages, which are traditionally dictated to Red Cross Red Crescent staff in separate meetings, in Malaysia, the phone messages are extracted from what has been written down in the Red Cross messages.

Going home is not easy

It may not sound like much. But for the detainees, awaiting their fate with days turning into weeks, then months and years, any help or interaction with the outside the world is welcomed. “Some of them have been here for as long as two years,” explains Mohammed Ramlan Bin Che Hassan, who has been in charge of the Lenggeng centre for the past three years and has seen the number of detainees rise from 800 to more than 1,500 during his tenure.

“We just want these people to go back to their homes,” he says, adding that most detainees are being held due to immigration offences such as lack of official documentation or valid work permits. “Here, we are dealing with detention and deportation, not punishment.”

But ‘going home’ isn’t so easy. Organizing the paperwork and lost passports through embassies, or finding the funding to pay for plane tickets, means many of those brought to the IDC will be detained for at least three months. And with their mobile phones confiscated on arrival and telephone cards for the pay phones prohibitively expensive, contact with their families can quickly be lost.

“There is definitely a need for the RFL service in the immigrant detention centres,” says Muna Djuly, the ICRC’s assistant protection officer. “The detainees will maybe get one free call when they arrive or maybe on a holiday like at Eid. Other than that, they have to pay for a phone card, which often they can’t afford, in order to make international calls. And, of course, there is no internet access, so as time goes on, they are cut off from their families.”

Each month, before the RFL team arrives at the IDC, the detainees sit two by two in orderly lines, with men on one side and women on the other.

People on the move

All are wearing distinctive yellow t-shirts emblazoned with tahanan Imigresen (immigration detainee). Some are already familiar with what have come to be known as ‘red messages’ and are hoping to receive a reply from loved ones. Others are hearing about the RFL service for the first time and are shown a poster, which explains the service in languages such as Arabic, Chittagonian, Indonesian, Nepali and Persian.

Each time they visit, the ICRC and Malaysian Red Crescent Society teams set up desks and chairs in an empty room, which is usually used for weekly medical visits by the Malaysian Ministry of Health.

“The RFL team always meets detainees in a room away from the cells,” says Max Weigmann, deputy head of the ICRC regional delegation in Kuala Lumpur, explaining that the visits offering RFL services are completely different from the ICRC detention visits, which are also undertaken here to check on the conditions and welfare of detainees.

In most countries where ICRC works in detention settings, RFL services are integrated into its one-on-one meetings with detainees. While Red Cross messages could be part of that visit, the main purpose is to speak about prison conditions and treatment of inmates.

The RFL meetings organized with the Malaysian Red Crescent Society are different and focus entirely on the process of relaying messages from the detainees, which in itself can be a complicated process.

“RFL with migrants is very different and, in most cases, less sensitive for the authorities than in a conflict situation,” says Djuly. “It’s also a lot more complicated than in a natural disaster because you’re dealing with people from many countries, with different languages and all kinds of different situations.

“In an emergency or conflict, you tend to hear similar stories and are mainly tracing people who are still in their own countries. RFL for migrants is totally different because you are dealing with people on the move.”

The complexity of each human story is evident during the monthly RFL visit to Lenggeng. IDC regulations require that all the messages be written in English. So it can take some time before the information is extracted and written down on the form.

It takes almost three hours to collect 22 Red Cross messages. A number of the detainees are unable to read or write. The vast majority cannot speak English and rely on their co-detainees who have learnt Malay or have a smattering of English to help them convey their messages to the team.

One by one, stories are told and messages are collected. There is the young man from Nepal who was tricked into working on a remote plantation and ran away. Next, three Indian men explain to a Tamil-speaker from the Malaysian Red Crescent Society that they want to contact their wives and ask them to buy their plane tickets home.

Then young women from Cambodia, Myanmar and Uganda, all arrested for various irregularities with paperwork and visas, come forward wanting to write to parents and grandparents. It’s an unspoken reality that many women are trafficked into prostitution in Malaysia but many are too ashamed to tell their families.

Some detainees are hesitant about using the RCM service. “It sometimes happens that detainees are reluctant to fill out an RCM for fear of worrying their families or feeling ashamed that this has happened to them,” says Lim. “We try to persuade them but some people just don’t want to be found.”

Once an RCM is written, there is also a further challenge of ensuring the address and contact information are correct so the message can be delivered successfully.

“Phone numbers, addresses and other contact information often get lost in the chaos of the journey or sometimes names are not spelt correctly,” explains Djuly as she points to one form in which ‘near to the coffee factory’ has been neatly written in the address section. “Plus many family members move around or become scattered, making tracing difficult.”

The detainees have no writing paper, so some detainees have written out important phone numbers on the back of chewing gum wrappers or noodle packets and painstakingly copy down the digits onto the RCM forms.

“Sometimes we can get permission to get their mobiles phones back from the lockers so we can find a number someone is looking for,” says Lim while scanning through the messages for potentially sensitive words, which are blacked out with a pen. “We always have to explain to them that they can only write family news,” she adds. “The authorities check all the RCMs so we want to protect their [detainees’] security and take out anything that could be seen as critical or sensitive.”

A reliable tool

In the absence of reliable contact information, mobile phones and internet access, Lim stresses that the Red Cross message, first set up 100 years ago, remains a key tool for modern tracing work.

“Despite all the new technology and things like Facebook, which can be very useful, the Red Cross message is still very important,” she says. “We still need to use the RCM forms because not everyone has connectivity and sometimes they don’t know the phone numbers or their families moved away a long time ago. Now we can scan the form and e-mail it to our colleagues in National Societies and their branches to hand out in the villages or wherever. It’s still a good way of working.”

As each case is processed, Ramlan and his staff hover in the background taking a curious interest in what is taking place. Over the past three years, the ICRC and Malaysian Red Crescent Society have slowly become accepted and understood within the detention centre. But there are still challenges in terms of communication and a key part the process is managing expectations of the detainees.

There is no guarantee that the messages will reach the intended person or that the detainee will receive a response. As Ramlan says, the rate of reply to RCMs can be slow and is often a disappointment to some detainees. But, he adds, “If even one person is helped, it is a success.”

Every link matters

Perhaps, but with millions of people on the move, and many of them detained or staying discreetly in countries along the migratory route, will the Movement’s RFL services be encompassing enough to offer a reliable, global messaging service in the age of cell phones, Google and Facebook?

Clearly, in detention settings where communications are limited, the Red Cross message continues to play a major role. And the Movement’s worldwide grass-roots presence makes it uniquely suited for taking on this global humanitarian task.

Indeed, cooperation is strong on RFL and migration issues in many regions and efforts towards expanding collaboration in this area are ongoing.  In South-East Asia and the Pacific islands, for example, tracing requests often come in to the Malaysian Red Crescent Society from the Australian Red Cross, as many migrants have settled in Australia or have been detained within its jurisdiction. Or they come from families in conflict-affected countries such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Syria who contact their local Red Cross or Red Crescent for help in finding out what has happened to their loved ones.

But what happens when there are weak links in the chain? In some countries along the migratory route, in Indonesia for example, neither the ICRC nor the National Society has access to migrant detainees. In other countries, the National Society itself does not have robust RFL services.

“For many National Societies, RFL is not always a priority because there is no conflict and, therefore, no urgent need,” explains the ICRC’s Weigmann, adding that the consistent training and support of specialized RFL teams would ultimately be more beneficial than the sudden mobilizing of non-trained RFL staff to respond to a sudden-onset emergency.

For these and other reasons, the Movement’s increased engagement on migration, which was formalized in 2007 with a declaration during the 30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, has generated considerable internal debate.

Some have expressed concern that the Movement, and particularly National Societies, do not have the resources and capacity to tackle such a complex issue as migration and that other expert organizations, such as the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Refugee Agency and other grass-roots non-governmental organizations, already have this specific mandate.

With RFL, for example, if there are weak links in the Movement’s RFL services along the world’s many migration trails, is it running the risk of offering false hopes to migrant detainees, refugees or others who fill out Red Cross messages?

For the Malaysian Red Crescent Society, RFL only became a priority in 2004, when it trained 500 volunteers across its 15 branches. “RFL had never been a priority in the branches and most of them didn’t even know it was a service we provided,” says Djuly. “So the training was very basic, just an introduction to the service, the RCM forms and how to fill them out.”

Malaysian Red Crescent team members acknowledge that scant human and financial resources make RFL work a challenge for a number of reasons. “A lot of our volunteers are medics, or medical students, or in full-time jobs like teaching, so this means they are not available on weekdays,” explains Jaya Maruthan, head of international relations at the Malaysian Red Crescent. “This creates a problem because the RFL visits can only happen on weekdays, so often we have to use volunteers who have not had the training.”

RFL visits may also require another kind of training: psychosocial support. Interaction in often highly charged and emotional environments can be demanding on both the RFL team and the detainees. “Our visits are almost a form of psychosocial support,” says Lim. “Just talking can be of great help.” She cites the example of the English-speaking African detainees who simply relish the opportunity to speak to someone and express themselves.

“But over time you do notice the change in many of the migrants,” she says. “Their spirits become low and they start to look dishevelled. But we are not trained to deal with depression and psychosocial issues.”

Irrespective of debates over Movement strategies on migration, it’s clear to those meeting with migrants and taking their messages that their efforts are making a difference, even if it is a small one, in this growing global humanitarian crisis.

“Often the detainees just want to talk and connect,” agrees Djuly, again stressing the importance of the RCM service. “Just by writing something down in an RCM, they know that someone knows they are there.”

By Jessica Sallabank
Jessica Sallabank is a freelance journalist based in Sydney, Australia.
*Not her real name

ICRC assistant protection officer Muna Djuly says Restoring Family Links services are greatly needed because access to telephone, internet and other forms of communication inside immigrant detention centres is very limited.
Photo: ©Haris Coussidis/ICRC






“RFL with migrants
is … a lot more
than in a natural
disaster because
you’re dealing
with people from
many countries,
with different
languages and all
kinds of different

Muna Djuly,
ICRC assistant
protection officer








New frontiers

Over the past few decades the global rate of migration has increased significantly with more than 200 million people now classified as international migrants. Factors such as conflict, persecution, poverty and the search for employment are driving this global trend, which in turn is creating growing humanitarian needs for the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.

In South-East Asia, migration is a prevalent issue. For example, between 2 and 4 million migrants, of many different nationalities, are thought to be living in Malaysia. Some pass through, fleeing conflict or persecution, ultimately hoping to seek asylum or be resettled in other countries such as Australia or Canada. Many others are duped by traffickers or are economic migrants who come to Malaysia to work, often illegally, and find themselves arrested and awaiting deportation in one of Malaysia’s 17 immigration detention centres around the country.

Around the world, the Movement offers services for migrants in desperate and immediate need (those who have just landed by boat or crossed a desert, and are hungry, sick, cold or dehydrated, for example). And in many cases, it offers more long-term help such as integrating with new communities, referrals for dealing with legal or other issues, or tracking down lost loved ones through its Restoring Family Links services. For those in detention, cut off from normal communication channels, some National Societies see the Movement’s RFL network as offering a unique global service to populations with roots in every corner of the globe.

One hundred years after the establishment of the Central Tracing Agency and the International Prisoners-of-War Agency — institutions that cemented the Movement’s role in reuniting people separated by war and in protecting those detained during wartime — the issue of migration is pushing the Movement’s protection mandate into new territory.

Could RFL be an important means to reach out to this growing, and extremely vulnerable, migrant population?

Migrants from different countries in western Africa sit in the police commissioner’s office after being arrested at a border checkpoint in Agadez, Niger in March 2014.
Photo: ©REUTERS/Joe Penney









Lim Mei Chin, Malaysian Red Crescent’s RFL officer, says Red Cross messages are still a crucial tool because many relatives of migrants do not have phones or computers. Often they have changed phone numbers, or the migrants have lost the phone numbers of their loved ones.
Photo: ©Haris Coussidis/ICRC






“Despite all the
new technology
and things like
Facebook, which
can be very useful,
the Red Cross
message is still

Lim Mei Chin,
RFL officer,
Malaysian Red
Crescent Society








This 24-year-old migrant from Mali stands inside a refugee centre in Spain’s North African enclave Melilla, 19 March 2014.
Photo: ©REUTERS/Juan Medina







This Ethiopian woman, along with many others, was deported from Saudi Arabia late last year. Upon her return, volunteers from the Ethiopia Red Cross helped her reconnect with family members and provided food, first aid and other forms of assistance.
Photo: ©Berhanu Gezahegn/Ethiopian Red Cross Society








“Today I was able
write my first
Cross message
my mother,
has given me

Catherine, a detainee
and migrant from Uganda,
being held at the Lenggeng
detention centre, south of
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia








Lim Mei Chin, Malaysian Red Crescent’s Restoring Family Links officer, helps Catherine write a message to her family in Uganda.
Photo: ©Haris Coussidis/ICRC


Contact Us