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Mali: Giving new hope to dispersed families

16-12-2013 Operational Update No 11/2013

Conflict since January 2012 and repeated food crises have forced tens of thousands to flee the north of Mali. Some were separated from other family members while seeking refuge within Mali or abroad. The Mali Red Cross and the ICRC are helping to restore contact.

"Over and above the most visible humanitarian consequences, population displacement – which sometimes occurs suddenly – has torn apart and sundered entire families," said Christoph Luedi, head of the ICRC delegation in Mali. "Refugees don't know what happened to close relatives who have remained behind in Mali. Unfortunately, this kind of thing is common in every conflict."

The lack of security prevents traditional means of communication from functioning properly, which makes it even more difficult for people to contact each other. Unfortunately, the exile of many refugees and other displaced people confronted with the unsettled situation in the north of the country could be set to continue.

Within Mali itself and also in refugee camps set up in adjacent countries, the Mali Red Cross and the ICRC are striving to restore contact between people separated by the conflict from other members of their families. In places of detention, the ICRC offers its services to people held in connection with the conflict and to minors who have been associated with armed forces or groups – all of whom are vulnerable and sometimes go without news of their relatives for months at a time.

Enabling detainees to restore contact with their families

The ICRC endeavours to visit everyone arrested and detained in connection with the conflict. It has stepped up its efforts since a comprehensive agreement on the visits was signed with the Malian authorities in April 2013. The ICRC is currently visiting 256 individuals held in 21 places of detention throughout the country with the aim of ensuring that the conditions respect the lives and dignity of those held there.

The detainees are given the opportunity to renew contact with relatives they have not heard from. Using hand-written messages or "salamats" (indicating they are alive and well), or phone calls made from ICRC offices, they can give news of a strictly personal nature.

Since the beginning of the year, the ICRC has facilitated 163 phone calls between detainees and their families. In addition, 119 messages have been distributed or collected in cooperation with the Mali Red Cross. This effort extends to neighbouring countries, including Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso.

Children are particularly vulnerable

Minors who have been associated with armed forces or groups are sometimes in the places of detention. Under an agreement signed by the Malian authorities and the United Nations, the children can be released and placed in either of two psychosocial support and literacy centres run by Intersos, a non-governmental organization, in Bamako.

In such cases, the ICRC makes sure that the agreement has been followed and that the minors have been transferred to one or the other of the centres. The organization then helps the minors find, renew contact with and, if need be, rejoin their families. So far, 15 children have been reunited with their families, in Gao, Timbuktu, Mopti and Ségou in the north of Mali, but also in Niger.

"Before any family reunification, we check that all the necessary conditions are met. There's no question of exposing the children to further risk," said Filipa Neto Marques, of the ICRC in Mali. "Afterwards, we have to make sure that their reintegration goes well. It's a long process. In all cases, we are guided by the child's best interests."

While awaiting a possible reunification, each child can maintain regular contact with his family by telephone, videoconference or hand-written messages.

Working in partnership with the Mali Red Cross

All these activities are made possible by numerous Mali Red Cross volunteers working throughout the country. The network has recently been boosted through the training of 102 volunteers from 42 places in all parts of the country.

"We have provided our young volunteers with excellent training," said Dieneba Koureissi, in charge of the national tracing services of the Mali Red Cross. "The cameras, motorcycles and telephones that we've supplied them with will enable them to put smiles on the faces of many more families currently without news of relatives."

The ICRC and the Mali Red Cross are carrying out these activities in coordination with the Red Cross Society of Niger, the Burkinabé Red Cross Society and the Mauritanian Red Crescent.

For further information, please contact:
Valery Mbaoh Nana, ICRC Bamako, tel: +223 76 99 63 75
Wolde-Gabriel Saugeron, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 22 730 31 49 or +41 79 244 64 05


Photos

An ICRC employee collects Red Cross messages. 

Tin Hama, Gao, Mali.
An ICRC employee collects Red Cross messages.
© ICRC

An ICRC employee delivers a Red Cross message. 

Tin Hama, Gao, Mali.
An ICRC employee delivers a Red Cross message.
© ICRC

A woman gets an update on her son thanks to an ICRC phone. 

Ménaka, Gao, Mali.
A woman gets an update on her son thanks to an ICRC phone.
© ICRC

A man recognises his son on a photo, after being without news of him for some time. 

Tilabery, Mali.
A man recognises his son on a photo, after being without news of him for some time.
© ICRC

A Malian farmer has just been reunited with his wife and three children, thanks to the ICRC and the Malian Red Cross. The conflict in northern Mali had separated them over five months previously. 

Mopti, Mali.
A Malian farmer has just been reunited with his wife and three children, thanks to the ICRC and the Malian Red Cross. The conflict in northern Mali had separated them over five months previously.
© ICRC / v-p-ml-e-00035

An ICRC delegate phones the relative of a refugee who has remained in Mali, to enable them to exchange news. 

Agoudoufoga, northern Tillabéry, Niger.
An ICRC delegate phones the relative of a refugee who has remained in Mali, to enable them to exchange news.
© ICRC / L. Mamoudou / v-p-ne-e-00089