Restoring family links in Asia: from WWII to the Internet era
At a recent training course organized by the Red Cross Society of China and the ICRC, in the city of Shenyang, participants discussed how the Movement’s traditional methods of seeking to restore family links in time of emergencies was now facing a challenge from internet and mobile phone operators. What is the situation and what added value can the Red Cross/Red Crescent offer? ICRC staff member Yinan Sun reports from Beijing.
The seminar provided an opportunity to view and discuss a new documentary about the Movement’s world-wide service to restore family links (RFL) between relatives separated by conflict or natural disaster. The ICRC’s Regional Adviser on RFL activities in the Asia-Pacific region, Valerie Meredith, felt that viewing a 90-minute documentary – called 25 Words – would enable the Chinese Red Cross workers to reflect more broadly on the practice and development of one of the oldest and unique activities carried out by Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, together with the ICRC.
25 Words – made by independent Chinese film maker Liu Shen – retraces the history of Red Cross messages exchanged by three Chinese sisters between China, Germany and the United States during the Second World War. After viewing the documentary, several participants said they were touched by the impact that passing family messages to loved ones in time of war and emergencies can make.
Discussion then turned to the evolution and development of communication technologies, and whether this has resulted in the role of the Red Cross and Red Crescent being less central and less relevant today in providing family news services in emergencies. The traditional broad role of the RFL service was felt by many to be challenged by a host of actors with a sophisticated and powerful online presence, such as media organizations, mobile telephone service providers, which are increasingly able to provide rapid services to put people back in touch. So, are Red Cross Messages and other RFL services of the Red Cross still relevant?
According to Mrs Meredith, several factors illustrate the unique role played by the Red Cross/Red Crescent in this area. They include the ICRC’s presence in the field, especially in conflict areas, its impartial approach, its regular contacts with families and its unique access to places of detention; the importance of confidentiality in the respect of the families’ privacy and dignity; the proximity to the population – in particular the most vulnerable such as the sick, the wounded or elderly who are unable to connect themselves, the quality of the services offered and the multiple relays thanks to the network of Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers. All of these are undeniable assets, providing a human touch exceptional added value. In addition the ICRC puts a strong emphasis on the protection of personal data, which is often not the case for other actors, in particular those operating on line.
RFL in the age of the World Wide Web
Valerie Meredith acknowledges that, in peaceful countries in particular, the RFL service of the Red Cross and Red Crescent is challenged by the range of different possibilities for people to communicate with each other across long distances and at a great speed, even during emergencies. To face these challenges, the ICRC is continuously adapting the RFL tools and mechanisms to reflect modern technologies and the multitude of ways that people use to communicate today. The ICRC has, for example developed a web site that can help people reconnect with each other in emergencies.
"The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is engaged in a ten-year strategy (2008-2018) to consolidate the service that provides family news between separated family members in situations of conflicts, of natural and man-made disasters, in situations requiring a humanitarian response in the field of migration, or as a result of other situations of violence,” says Valerie Meredith, the Regional Adviser on RFL activities for the ICRC in the Asia-Pacific region.
The experience from recent disasters has, however, shown that while large, web-based companies can be very quick and effective to cope with a huge, immediate need created by a natural disaster, the follow-up is not always assured, and the human aspect might be diluted by technology. According to Mrs. Meredith, the real added value the Red Cross and Red Crescent can bring in today’s emergencies is through its presence on the ground, close to the affected population, providing help with re-establishing contact between loved ones and the most vulnerable.
The latter can include people in hospitals or in shelters, the elderly and dependent persons, and children separated from their families and the support from Red Cross volunteers on spot is often vital.
The ICRC’s unique position is illustrated through its work in parts of Asia. ICRC delegates have been visiting people arrested in connection with the violence for several years in Southern Thailand and in early 2011 it enabled 33 families to make the long trip from southern Thailand to Bangkok, to visit relatives held there. In late 2011, and in coordination with the Thai authorities, the ICRC informed thousands of families of prisoners transferred to other places of detention after the flooding of their prison. In the Philippines, the ICRC is helping the families of security detainees visit their loved ones. In Myanmar, it does the same and helped the family visits for 629 detainees in 2011. During the Great Eastern Japan earthquake and tsunami, the ICRC with the Japanese Red Cross and national societies worked towards restoring links between separated families. It launched a special webpage in five different languages.
In Nepal, more than 1,400 people are still missing following the 10-year armed conflict, leaving their families distraught. The ICRC and the Nepal Red Cross Society have registered these cases and have organised programmes that support the families. Being in constant touch means that staff have to walk for days to reach families in the most remote parts of the country. The proximity and personal touch of these contacts cannot be replaced by any technology, insists Valerie Meredith, although technology provides useful tools. One of the best example is found in Timor Leste, where the ICRC continues to update information on persons unaccounted for as the consequences of events which occurred until 2000. It still makes representations to all parties concerned and assists affected families with psychological and social support and with basic material to help them to hold proper burial.
Coordination is important
Good coordination among all the different actors, be they from the authorities, from telecom companies or social media, as well as from other humanitarian agencies, is now a key challenge helping affected populations restore family links. As part of this, the role of the Red Cross can remain significant because it makes up the largest humanitarian network in the world. The ICRC supports National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies across the world to build their capacity and reinforce their role in providing on-the-spot family news services to vulnerable people following conflicts or disasters. The training in Restoring Family Links conducted in Shenyang for Chinese Red Cross workers is an example of this support.
Restoring family links
Each year hundreds of thousands of people are separated from their loved ones as a result of conflicts, natural disasters or migration. In these catastrophic situations, families are torn apart, entire populations are displaced or forced into exile, the elderly are left behind, children are lost amid the chaos, many people go missing and the dead may remain unidentified. To restore the contacts of people and meet other humanitarian needs, the ICRC provides the service called restoring family links, which covers a wide range of activities, all designed to alleviate the pain of separation among loved ones.