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Somalia/Kenya: preventing loss of family ties for refugees with a phone call

20-09-2011 Interview

In response to the recent influx of people fleeing the humanitarian crisis in Somalia, the ICRC and Kenya Red Cross Society have stepped up tracing activities in the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya. Ivan Antonic, ICRC specialist in restoring family links (RFL), is just back from a three-week mission there to establish the first family news mobile phone service for refugees in East Africa.

How does the ICRC help Somali refugees in Dadaab?

One of the most urgent needs for new arrivals from Somalia is to be able to get in touch with their family members who stayed behind to let them know that they arrived safely and are well. Over the last few weeks, an average of 1,500 new refugees arrives at the camp daily. Many of them have horrific stories to tell about a rough journey and are exhausted upon arrival. Helping these people contact their loved ones is a priority for the ICRC and its restoring family links (RFL) services.  

RFL services in the four Dadaab refugee camps, about 70 km from the border with Somalia, began in the 1980s and give the refugees the possibility to write a Red Cross message (RCM) to their relatives in Somalia or elsewhere around the world. But you can imagine that it is very difficult to deliver written messages in some areas of Somalia right now, and it takes a long time. So the true innovation here today, is that the ICRC has decided to offer a mobile phone service for the newly arrived refugees: each of them can call a relative for two minutes anywhere in the world to let them know they are in Dadaab and doing fine. It's a very quick, efficient and cheap way of helping these people.

The figures show the success of the new programme: in the past three weeks since the first phone calls were made, more than 1,800 refugees on average could benefit from this free service every week, including almost 800 minors, and the numbers are rising. It is such a reward to see a little boy smile when he finally gets to hear his mother's voice on the line!

How do the mobile tracing teams work?

There are three tracing teams active every day in Dadaab. One team sets up its tent in the registration area for newly arrived refugees. While the refugees are waiting for many hours to be registered and then transferred to one of the four camps by the Kenyan authorities, the team, made up of ICRC staff and volunteers of the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS), gives each of the refugees a chance to make a two-minute phone call to a family member of their choice, anywhere in the world. Most of them choose to contact their relatives left behind in Somalia, but some also get in touch with their families abroad, in the U.S. or Australia for example, or in Kenya. One person even managed to call his relative in Libya!

Two other tracing teams are mobile and go to different locations every day, north and south of Dadaab. They use a "tracing kit", basically a big metallic trunk that contains everything that is needed for the service to run: the charged mobile phones, lists with all country codes from around the world, ICRC flags and aprons, and stopwatches for the volunteers to make sure everyone respects the two minutes time allocated The work of the KRCS volunteers in the field is essential. As many of them are originally also part of refugee communities in Kenya, they speak some of the local languages of Somalia and can help the refugees understand and benefit from the free mobile phone service.

What are the main challenges for the tracing teams?

For the time being, the challenge is to make this service known to the newly arrived refugees in Dadaab. They are exhausted when they finally reach Kenya, and scared. Very often they seem to be in shock, and because they are given so much new information on their first days in the camp, it is hard for them to handle and process all of it. But we are getting there.

Another challenge for the joint ICRC / KRCS teams is the harsh climate: it's very hot, dry and dusty, which doesn't make for easy working conditions. I have a lot of respect for my colleagues who work there tirelessly. They are doing such important work and the service is highly appreciated. For example last week, I saw an old Somali man crying when he finally got in touch with his loved ones. In Somali culture, that is not something you can see very often. The phone calls are very emotional at times, also for the volunteers who monitor them.

Only time will tell in the coming weeks if it will be necessary to keep up the two mobile teams that are active right now. It all depends on the evolution of the humanitarian situation in Somalia and the number of new refugees that will continue to cross the border into Kenya. The ICRC is committed to supporting the restoring family links efforts together with the KRCS as long as necessary.

For more information on the RFL strategy 2008-2018: A ten-year strategy to strengthen the restoration of family links 


Photos

One of the four refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya. A KRCS volunteer helps a refugee make a phone call to a relative. 

One of the four refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya. A KRCS volunteer helps a refugee make a phone call to a relative.
© ICRC / KE-E-00245

Dadaab, Kenya. Ivan Antonic, ICRC tracing delegate 

Dadaab, Kenya. Ivan Antonic, ICRC tracing delegate
© ICRC / KE-E-00246

Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya. A Somali boy talks to one of his relatives. 

Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya. A Somali boy talks to one of his relatives.
© ICRC / KE-E-00247

Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya. The ICRC/KRCS mobile tracing team 

Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya. The ICRC/KRCS mobile tracing team
© ICRC / KE-E-00248

An ICRC restoring family links (RFL) mobile tracing kit 

An ICRC restoring family links (RFL) mobile tracing kit
© ICRC / KE-E-00249