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War and family links: general overview



    Loss of family contact    |      An international Red Cross and Red Crescent network    |      Restoring and maintaining family links    |      Unaccompanied children and other vulnerable persons    |      A network for prisoners and their families    |      Informing families of the death of a relative    |      Persons unaccounted for  
Loss of family contact 

  ref. RW-D-00039-02 

Restoration of family links between victims of armed conflict is one of the most longstanding activities of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and of the national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Active hostilities, the existence of front lines and security imperatives dictated by the parties to the conflict generally lead to a breakdown in traditional means of communication (postal services, telephone links, etc.) and, at the same time, restrict or prohibit people's freedom of movement.


This, in turn, leads to loss of contact between family members, when certain relatives:

  • live on opposite sides of the front line;

  • have fled their homes, have become displaced or have sought refuge in another country;

  • have been captured or arrested on account of the conflict;

  • have died.

An international Red Cross and Red Crescent network 
In regions affected by conflict, they are ICRC personnel and local Red Cross or Red Crescent staff, and any other persons and organizations who accept the working rules of the network and who are in a position to make an effective contribution. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working with refugees, and local religious or community leaders, for example, often act as the ICRC's partners in this respect.

In countries at peace, the tracing services of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies use their own networks to reach people from a region affected by conflict and can also rely on public means of communication.

The National Societies, which may be mobilized at a moment's notice in case of need, thus provide the ICRC with a worldwide network for the restoration of family links.

Restoring and maintaining family links 
The suffering of the families torn up by the war is huge, and the task to reestablish and maintain family links between separated fa mily members is immense. To remedy the situation and make up for the absence of normal means of communication, during the conflict the ICRC sets up and coordinates a network for the restoration of family links, both in areas directly affected by the conflict and in those receiving displaced people and refugees.

This network is both a postal service which collects and delivers family news and a tracing service, as the distribution of family messages, for exemple, involves locating addressees who have fled, have been displaced or are refugees.

ICRC strategy focuses primarily on offering to the persons directly affected by the war (i.e internally displaced persons, refugees, inhabitants remaining in the conflict zones, etc) differents means, so they can reassure their relatives who are living in non conflict areas and inform them of their wherabouts.

The means vary from one emergency context to another, depending on the prevailing political and military situation, on existing needs and on the resources available. These means aimed at simple, highly efficient and relatively inexpensive means of communication that do not require any follow-up involving data processing.

  • Refugees and displaced persons can use Red Cross mobile phones to inform their relatives, as a first contact, of their whereabouts and give them their new location.

  • Names and address of displaced persons and refugees who wish so can be broadcast over local and international radio networks. This radio broadcast of names is specially important for families remaining in isolated areas and who might be anxious to know if their next of kin arrived safely at destination. Radio broadcast is also used for particular cases, such as unaccompanied children or elderly persons. Their names are being broadcast in order to search for th eir parents or relatives. 

  • Names and address of persons who wish so can also be publish in news papers, or notice boards. 

  • Persons who have been displaced, are refugees or still moving can also register their name and address in the ICRC Family Links web site on internet. This medium is also used for transmission of family news (electronic Red Cross messages). However, the deployment of such a mean in conflict areas, where usual communication systems are disrupted needs carefull assessment. 

  • The most frequently medium used for family news is the Red Cross message. These unsealed messages are in general not held up by front lines or by security problems affecting communications in wartime; their content can be censored by the parties to the conflict at any time. Once the first contact has been established, the families will be able to maintain it as long as necessary, and to regularly exchange family news through the Red Cross messages international network.

The choice of one method over others and the way it is used are always based on a preliminary analysis which takes account of the desired aim, the context, the resources available and those required to achieve the aim. The means used should in no way risk causing harm to the persons concerned; any action taken must be in the interest of the victims and appropriate to local conditions.

The collection and distribution of messages, and the search for addressees are carried out by the people and organizations that make up the international network for the restoration of family links.Who are these people and organizations?

Unaccompanied children and other vulnerable persons 
In almost all emergencies - armed conflicts, mass population displacements, and other crisis situations - children get separated from their parents, families and other responsible adults. Because their status is seldom immediately clear, they are referred to as'separated or unaccompanied children'rather than'orphans'. The term'orphan'should be avoided, as long as the fate of a child's parents and/or other close relatives cannot be determined or settled.

Most separated or unaccompanied children can be reunited with parents, siblings, extended family, relatives, or other adults whom they know and who are willing to provide for their care. This suggests four basic intervention objectives, which the ICRC, in cooperation with other organisations, aims at:

  • to identify separated and unaccompanied children as quickly as possible, and register them;

  • to ensure their survival and well-being through interim care which meets their developmental needs;

  • to trace their parents and relatives, and to reunite them with their families as soon as possible;

  • to secure appropriate long-term care for those children who cannot be reunited with their own families.

Other persons, such as the elderly or disable persons, might as well be in a difficult situation during a conflict. They might remain behind, be isolated and separated from their relatives and unable to take care of themselves. Because of their particular vulnerability, the ICRC will undertake, when necessary, specific interventions aimed at their protection and family reunification. 

A network for prisoners and their families 
In accordance with its mandate, the ICRC makes every effort to obtain information on persons deprived of their liberty because of the conflict and to visit them in their places of detention. Such visits enable ICRC delegates to reassure families about the fate of their relatives and, by means of the Red Cross message network, allow the prisoners and their families to correspond.    
Informing families of the death of a relative 
The ICRC also takes steps to obtain death certificates and lists of people who have died while in the power of the adverse party, and gathers the accounts of witnesses. All these documents enable it to inform families of their relatives'fate.    
Persons unaccounted for 
At the end of a conflict, many families still suffer the anxiety of not knowing what has happened to one or more of their members. When enquiries sent via Red Cross messages to those who may have information on the missing person have not yielded any results, when the missing person cannot be found at his/her place of residence or among displaced people or refugees, and when he/she is not listed as having been arrested or as having died, then such a person is said to be unaccounted for.

When the peace process is under way, the former belligerents have the responsibility to take measures aimed at ascertaining the fate of persons unaccounted for.They must, in particular:

  • agree on a procedure to be followed and on a time-frame during which all information in their possession which might help elucidate the fate of persons unaccounted for will be assembled, so that the families may be informed;

  • where necessary, identify mortal remains;

  • decide upon a date on which files regarding persons still unaccounted for will be closed, and take the legal measures necessary to enable relatives to settle questions relating to civil status, etc.

In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, the ICRC may offer assistance to families and the former belligerents in its capacity as mediator and neutral intermediary. Such assistance helps attenuate the feelings of hatred and resentment and the thirst for revenge which unfortunately accompany every conflict situation.

The ICRC's assitance to families of persons unaccounted for can focuse on:

  • helping clarifying the fate of persons unaccounted for;

  • providing the families with legal and administrative coucelling;

  • providing the families with a psychological councelling.

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