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Haiti: helping restore family links severed by the earthquake

19-01-2010 Interview

Following the recent devastating earthquake in Haiti, thousands of people left with no news of their loved ones are living in anguish. Robert Zimmerman, deputy head of the ICRC's central tracing agency and protection division discusses the problem and what the organization is doing to help people trace missing relatives.

  See also:
  Looking for a family member?  

  ©ICRC/M. Kokic/ht-e-00454    
The ICRC helps people living in tents in the Canape Vert district of Port-au-Prince to re-establish contact with relatives via satellite phone.    
Robert Zimmerman, deputy head of the ICRC's central tracing agency and protection division 
     Many people have lost track of their relatives as a result of the earthquake that shook Haiti last week. Can you tell us more about the extent of the problem?  

Although it is impossible to estimate how many people have lost contact with relatives, the number of requests received from families abroad reveals the extent of the problem. Phone communications have been interrupted and people are evacuated to hospitals without getting a chance to inform their relativ es. Thousands of people are living in anguish, unsure whether their relatives are buried under the rubble or alive and unable to communicate.

 What exactly is the ICRC doing to help people search for their loved ones?  

Firstly, within less than 24 hours of the quake, the ICRC established a website which enables family members to restore contact. People, mainly abroad or outside the affected area, can post names of relatives they are without news of. Then, progressively, information is registered about people confirmed as alive. This can be done either by the individuals themselves, provided that they can access the internet, or by Red Cross personnel on the basis of information given by people they meet in hospitals, in shelters or other places.

To help people without the means to communicate with the outside inform relatives that they are alive, a post was established at the headquarters of the Haitian Red Cross with computers and staff ready to assist the people.

On 18 January, there were more than 22,000 people registered on the website, including more than 1,500 wishing to inform loved ones that they were alive. In addition 220 people requested that we delete the names of individuals being traced because contact had been restored, either independently or through the ICRC website.


 What is the advantage in using the web means compared to the traditional paper-based tracing requests?  

Obviously, advantages are related to the rapidity in reaching huge numbers of people and transmitting information. The website also enables people to share and access the information on people being sought or to convey information on their wellbeing, without going through an ICRC or a national Red Cross office.


 What are the main challenges the organization is facing on the ground? Are there limits to what the ICRC and the Haitian Red Cross can do to help families stay in touch?  

Constraints remain extremely high. Fortunately, mobile phones have been working now for several days and many people are restoring contact. Considering the enormous needs of the population in terms of water, food, shelter, health and other essentials, we have to identify who requires assistance in restoring family links. We are, therefore, setting up a service which people can use to restore contact, and publicizing it to all, so that those in need of help in the area contact us. At the same time, we are visiting specific institutions, such as hospitals, to determine whether some of the people being sought by their loved ones are there. Unaccompanied children are also a priority.

 Are there other organizations working now in Haiti to help people know about the fate or whereabouts of their relatives? And how is the ICRC coordinating its efforts with them?  

Some internet companies or media outlets have set up their own websites to facilitate family contacts. Others on the ground have taken initiatives on a personal b asis, gathering and forwarding information on neighbours or friends, on institutions, such as orphanages, etc. However, to our knowledge no other organizations are operational in restoring family links on a global scale at present.


 When was the web used first to help re-establish broken family links? What were, in recent history, the main humanitarian crises during which the ICRC developed similar activities?  

The first ICRC Family Links Website was set up in 1995 in relation to the armed conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since then, it has been used both in situations of armed conflict, such as in Kosovo, Iraq or Somalia, and following natural disasters, such as hurricane Katrina in the United States of America or the 2004 tsunami in South Asia. The website makes it possible not only to respond to immediate needs stemming from acute crises but also to cases of people who remain unaccounted for after the crisis is over. This is the case for instance with regard to people who went missing during the armed conflict in Nepal.


 When it comes to the restoration of family links, what is the difference between a natural disaster and a situation of armed conflict?   


Different crises may indeed have consequences of a very different nature. Mainly, the impact on family links depends on whether telephone communications remain functional or not and this may vary very much both in armed conflicts and in natural disasters. In armed conflict, security concerns necessitate that particular caution be exercised in handling information on individuals, even when working w ith the purely humanitarian goal of restoring family contacts.