ICRC Central Tracing Agency: half a century of restoring family links

07-04-2010 Interview

The Central Tracing Agency provides a range of tracing services worldwide that enable detainees and civilians affected by conflict, disaster and other situations to restore contact with members of their families. To mark the Agency’s 50th anniversary, the ICRC’s historian and its deputy director of operations discuss the history of the Agency andits current activities.

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Photos: the ICRC Central Tracing Agency turns 50


Full-size photos on Flickr

  World War I. Geneva, Switzerland. Missing persons department of the International Prisoners-of-War Agency.    
  World War II. The Central Prisoners-of-War Agency.    
  ©ICRC/T. Gassmann/rw-n-00101-15    
  A hospital in Bukavu, Zaïre, in 1994. Following the Rwandan genocide the ICRC registered thousands of unaccompanied children to help reunite them with their families.    
  ©ICRC/B. Heger/al-n-00019-34a    
  Albania, 1999. Kosovan refugees used telephones provided by the ICRC to contact relatives they had lost touch with while fleeing the conflict in Kosovo.    
  ©British Red Cross/A. Sweeting/af-e-01416    
  2008. Via video-conference calls, people speak to their relatives held in a United States detention facility in Afghanistan.    
  ©ICRC/R. Haviv/cd-e-01001    
  2009. Roger Bimael, 17, who was separated from his family by the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is reunited with his loved ones.    
Jean-François Pitteloud, ICRC historian 
   The ICRC is marking the 50th anniversary of the Central Tracing Agency. But the organization has been conducting tracing activities since it began. How did all this start?  

It was Henry Dunant who, in 1859, during the Battle of Solferino, made the first gesture illustrating what the ICRC Tracing Agency was to become. The man who was subsequently to play a key role in the creation of the Red Cross wrote the following in his account of the battle, A Memory of Solferino:  

" A young Corporal named Claudius Mazuet, some twenty years old, with gentle expressive features, had a bullet in the left side. There was no hope for him, and of this he was fully aware. When I had helped him to drink, he thanked me, and added with tears in his eyes: " Oh, Sir, if you could write to my father to comfort my mother! " I noted his parents'address, and a moment later he had ceased to live. "

Dunant added in a footnote: " The parents lived at 3, rue d'Alger, in Lyons, and this young man who had joined the army as a volunteer was their only son. The only news they received of him was that which I gave them. Like many others, his name appeared among the'missing'. "

 When did tracing become one of the ICRC's core activities?  


The work carried out by the Red Cross to maintain and restore family links developed considerably during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 through what was known as its Basle Agency.

But it was during the First and Second World Wars, under the respective denominations of " International Prisoners-of-War Agency " and " Central Agency for Prisoners of War " , that the Agency took on a crucial role as the focus of the ICRC's humanitarian action. So much so that during the 1914-1918 war the ICRC merged completely with the Agency and did not resume autonomous operations until 1919.


 The ICRC changed the Agency's name in 1960 to Central Tracing Agency, why is the name change significant? Were there any specific events that prompted this change?   

The ICRC's intention was to indicate that the organization also took account of the victims of internal armed conflicts or even internal unrest, which the authorities concerned often refused to regard as events of war in the usual sense of the term.

For the Agency's activities had been covering new categories of persons – non-prisoner civilians and refugees – since 1945. It had been reuniting families and tracing persons held captive and others reported as missing in internal conflicts, people whom governments refused to recognize as belligerents.

By 1960, the former denomination no longer corresponded to the new activities the ICRC had been conducting during the conflicts of the Cold War, such as the uprising in Hungary in 1956, or during conflicts connected with decolonization, such as the Algerian War or the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya. What is more, the ICRC was considering the po ssibility for the Agency to extend its activities to searching for victims of natural disasters, as it had done in Morocco after the Agadir earthquake in 1960. A new denomination thus had to be found that would not hamper these developments.

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Angela Gussing, ICRC deputy director of operations 

 The ICRC has a long history in tracing. Why is tracing important and what are the more important developments in this area?  

I believe we can all personally relate to how difficult it would be if one member of our family suddenly disappeared and his or her whereabouts and wellbeing remained unknown. For most people, the ability to stay in touch with family members is an essential and basic need.

From the beginning, the ICRC worked to enable prisoners of war to stay in touch with their families. Today, we continue to do this for detainees all over the world, but we also help civilians affected by conflicts, disasters or other situations, such as migration, by providing a range of tracing services that enable people to restore contact with members of their families.

Over the last few years, the ICRC has worked much more closely with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to conduct tracing activities. This partnership is essential for meeting the needs of people separated from their families. Through such cooperation, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is able to provide services across national borders, assisting family members to restore contact or to clarify the fate of missing relatives.

To give an example, in Rwanda during the decade following the genocide in 1994, the ICRC, together with several National Societies and other organizations, reunited tens of thousands of childre n with their families. It was an enormous task involving listening to each child's story and understanding their particular situation, coordinating with the authorities, transmitting messages and verifying the identities of parents and children, among other things. It is deeply touching for any delegate to witness the joy of a family that is brought back together.

Another important development in tracing is the recognition of the need for families who have lost contact with their loved ones to know what happened to them. It has become part of international humanitarian law and human rights law. Families now have the right to be informed about the fate of missing relatives.

 In today's world with internet and mobile phones so prevalent, why would people still need Red Cross and Red Crescent services to restore family links?  

Not surprisingly, advances in technology have had a major impact on tracing, mainly by speeding up the transmission of information to huge numbers of people. The ICRC has moved with the times and uses these new means to help families get in touch with their loved ones.

For example, following the recent earthquake in Haiti, the ICRC established a website to help thousands of people left with no news of their loved ones restore contact with them. While our field teams in Haiti registered people who had survived, people abroad could post the names of relatives they were looking for. Many people were able to find their relatives and some contacted us to express their relief and joy in knowing that their family member was alive. Modern technology allowed some people to receive news very quickly. Sadly, many others will not receive a reassuring sign from their relatives.

It would however be erroneous to think that nowadays everybody has access to and is familiar with computers or mo bile telephones.

In times of crisis, many people manage, through their own means, to contact family members and do not need our services. Still, these crises often affect people who are already vulnerable before the event. People affected may not necessarily have access to the internet or telephones to begin with. This means that there are many people who still depend on the Red Cross and Red Crescent to help them restore contact with missing family members.

 Tracing requires close cooperation with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. How does the ICRC work with National Societies to trace people who are either missing or separated from their families?  

Indeed, tracing requires very close collaboration and cooperation with a local, grass-root partner that knows the culture and environment. National Societies fit the bill and we are fortunate to work with them.

We all use the same approach when assisting separated family members. Take a Somali refugee in the United Kingdom who is looking for a relative he lost contact with owing to fighting in Mogadishu, Somalia. He can approach the British Red Cross in the United Kingdom, which contacts the ICRC and the Somali Red Crescent in Somalia. Tracing then begins in Mogadishu and may lead to information that the person being sought fled to Yemen. Through the Yemen Red Crescent, we may be able to locate the person who can then be put in contact with his relative in the United Kingdom.

This would be a happy ending, with the worldwide network functioning as it should. As part of our role of being in charge of the Central Tracing Agency, we coordinate this type of work to ensure we can help family members stay in touch.


Facts & Figures

  In 2009, the ICRC visited detention places with a total population of 479,669 detainees. Over 28,000 detainees benefited from ICRC family visit programmes. During that period, the ICRC:  
  • collected and distributed over 253,000 Red Cross messages;
  • published more than 83,000 names on its Family Links Website;
  • facilitated over 12,000 telephone calls, which enabled people separated from their families to restore contact with them;
  • carried out 1,063 family reunifications;
  • and worked on 45,605 tracing requests, including those made in 2009.