Haiti earthquake: one year on, the ICRC is still reuniting children with their parents
Since the violent earthquake hit Haiti on 12 January 2010, the ICRC has registered 146 children who became separated from their families. So far, it has reunited 59 of them with their families and found the relatives of 21 others. Each case involved lengthy and meticulous research, complicated administrative procedures, much travel and, above all, constant efforts to ensure respect for the children’s rights. Isabelle Jeanneret, head of the ICRC’s programme for restoring family links in Haiti, talks about this work, which gives hope to so many.
How do you go about finding missing relatives? Is the situation in Haiti unusual?
The ICRC works mainly in armed conflicts, not in natural disasters. However, our methods in Haiti are the same as anywhere else: we open a tracing case when a child is looking for his or her parents and likewise when parents are looking for their child.
After the earthquake, rescue teams poured in from all over the world. During the emergency phase, some of them evacuated small children without taking down their names or those of their parents. Although many children remained in Haiti, others were sent to France, the United States and neighbouring countries. As a result, we had to work with many different Red Cross organizations – far more than in other contexts – including the Haitian Red Cross, of course, and the American, French, Canadian and Dominican Red Cross Societies. One of the greatest strengths of our Movement is being able to rely on such a large network of sister organizations.
How has the family-links programme evolved since January 2010?
Immediately after the disaster, our priority was to restore contact between thousands of families who had lost touch with their relatives in Haiti and abroad. To do this, we provided stands where people could use the Internet and satellite telephones. We also set up a website that over 6,000 people used to let worried friends and family know that they were "safe and sound."
Once communications in the country had been restored, ICRC tracing teams, working together with Haitian Red Cross volunteers, concentrated all their efforts on reuniting children with their parents. This painstaking task involves talking with many people and requires a lot of patience.
The bulk of our work is now finished but we still have about 40 outstanding cases. Some of these involve children – some living in Martinique or Guadeloupe – who are in touch with their families but cannot yet be reunited with them for administrative or medical reasons.
Then there are the most difficult cases – those involving children whose parents cannot be found despite all our efforts.
What is the hardest thing about your work?
One of our greatest difficulties is gathering enough information to trace the parents of very small children who have not yet learned to talk. In such cases, we put up posters with their photos on.
What tracing methods are the most effective?
The best method is simply going door to door and talking to people. Our teams start by visiting the last place where the missing person was seen. Then they talk to the person’s neighbours, visit his or her house or school, and ask everyone they meet whether they know anything about the case.
In the most difficult cases – very young children who are unable to give us the information we need, or whose families had to move when their homes were destroyed – we display posters showing photos of the children.
Our first poster campaign was quite successful as it enabled us to find the parents of eight out of 17 children. We are now launching a second poster campaign for the remaining cases.
What happens to children whose families cannot be found?
Once we have exhausted every means of finding their family, children either remain in their foster homes (providing the family and the child agree) or in the centre where they are living at the moment. If a child has nowhere to go, we look for centres willing to take them in or, failing that, we hand them over to Haiti’s child-welfare authority (Institut du bien-être sociale et de recherches - IBERS), which is run by the Ministry of Social Affairs. But we haven’t reached that point yet – as long as the search goes on, there is hope.
See also: Adems, aka Samuel, poster child for hope