Restoring family links

Conflict and disaster separate families, leading to years of uncertainty about the fate of a relative. The ICRC and the National Societies locate people, exchange messages, reunite families and clarify the fate of missing persons.

Marie is reunited with her uncle after being separated for several months. Paulin Bashengezi/ICRC

Separated and missing people: A humanitarian issue

Every year, armed conflicts, others situations of violence, natural disasters and migration split up countless families. People suffer terribly when they lose contact with their loved ones and don't know where they are or whether they are safe.

It is a tragedy for families when persons remain unaccounted for. As long as they are not located, sought persons are considered missing. When missing persons are neither confirmed as being alive nor dead, families must learn to cope with this uncertainty and are also often faced with pressing humanitarian needs.

The ICRC undertakes a wide range of activities to help reconnect separated families and address the issue of missing persons for more than 150 years.

The Central Tracing Agency (CTA), founded in 1870, is a permanent structure within the ICRC to assist parties to an international armed conflict and prevent family separation and disappearance by collecting and transmitting information as a neutral intermediary. The CTA is one of the ICRC's oldest institutions enshrined in the Geneva Conventions.

Today the CTA is at the heart of the ICRC's efforts around the globe to protect and restore family links, to search for and identify missing persons, to protect the dignity of the dead, and to ensure that the needs of missing people's families are addressed.

ICRC restoring family links program. Lawrence is reunited with his son, Emmanuel, after more than a year apart. Mari Aftret Mortvedt/ICRC

Our aim and action

The ICRC and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies work together around the world as the Family Links Network to locate people and put them back into contact with their relatives. This work, called Restoring Family Links (RFL), includes tracing family members, re-establishing and maintaining contact, reuniting families and seeking to clarify the fate and whereabouts of those who remain missing.

The ICRC also aims to provide long-lasting, multidisciplinary and sustainable support to families and communities forced to deal with the ambiguous loss of missing persons.

The multidisciplinary approach to the Missing integrates tracing activities and support to families, as well as support to authorities, mechanisms and forensic institutions involved in clarifying the fate and whereabouts of missing persons. In particular, the ICRC proposes a new "Accompaniment" approach to address the needs of the families of missing.

Makamba province. ICRC restoring family links program. A family reunited. Juliana Amador Mesa/ICRC

The main goal of accompaniment is to strengthen the abilities of individuals and families to deal with difficulties related to the disappearance of their relatives and to recover a healthy social life. This can be done by making use of available resources in the community – local and national, individual and collective - and by creating a supportive network.

RFL activities can include putting people in contact via telephone, internet, and hand-written messages. They frequently entail tracing persons who are unaccounted for and registering particularly vulnerable persons such as children who have been separated from their families and people being held in detention.

In many cases, RFL work involves collecting information that may help clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing persons in the medium or long term. When tracing is successful, the ICRC will inform families of the whereabouts of their loved ones and when possible will help to reunite the families. When tracing remains inconclusive over time, the ICRC diversifies its response to address the multi-faceted needs of the families.