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War and family links: The ICRC's Rwandan Unaccompanied Children programme (1994-2000)


Back in spring 1994, humanitarian organizations working in Rwanda faced the extremely serious and complex challenge of how to protect and assist growing numbers of UACs in the midst of the ongoing catastrophe.

On 27 June 1994, the ICRC, together with UNHCR, UNICEF and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies drew up and published a joint declaration which set out principles stressing the importance of family unity and keeping records of all evacuated children who were separated from their relatives. The aim was to reunite children and parents separated by the conflict, and determine the policy for the care of UACs and for the tracing of family members. This was to be a crucial document for those humanitarian organizations involved, introducing medium-term tracing and reunification objectives as part of ongoing lifesaving and emergency care activities.

The ICRC, drawing on past experience in this fieldThe ICRC, together with the National Society network, has had more than a century's experience in restoring family links and tracing missing persons, and has conducted successful programmes to bring families together in countries such as Mozambique, Liberia and Cambodia., would play not only an active role in registration activities and tracing, but also become the depository, through its central database, of all information relating to the entire programme. Each organization participating agreed to:

  • register all UACs and keep track of them until an adult relative was able to take charge of them;

  • find a t least one adult relative and reunite the child with him/her;

  • provide all children with the assistance they needed, especially if they were unaccompanied.

From 1994 to the peak of the programme in 1996-97, some 150 other humanitarian organizations participated in the programme. The main partners included UNHCR, UNICEF, Save the Children Fund UK (SCF/UK), Concern, World Vision, Food for the Hungry International and Action Nord/Sud.


Between December 1994 and June 1996, over 1.5 million Rwandan refugees were housed in camps in Zaire, Tanzania and Burundi.



 Registering information  

The ICRC, together with numerous other NGOs involved in UAC activities, collaborated to identify, register and monitor UACs at children's centres and in foster families in Rwanda. Tracin g requests from parents seeking their lost children were also received and registered at this time. In exceptional circumstances UACs were transfered out of Rwanda for their own safety to nearby countries or to Europe, where National Red Cross Society tracing services registered them.   In the refugee camps in neighbouring countries, censuses were carried out by the ICRC and the NGO in charge.


 Centralizing and keeping track of information on UACs - growth of the database  

The ICRC set up a centralized database capable of processing large amounts of information in Nairobi, and by the autumn of 1994 a network of computers was installed throughout the Great Lakes region which were regularly updated with information on the registered UACs. Individual paper files were also kept for each child in the place of registration, in other offices processing the case and in Nairobi. At its peak, in June 1995, the task of entering data was handled by 80 people. The central Rwandan database could be accessed at the ICRC delegations and offices involved in the operation in Rwanda and in the neighbouring countries. Printouts and electronic copies of the database were also made available to other humanitarian organizations involved.

Apart from the practical problems of setting up a database of this size, such as space, hardware, the recruitment and training of staff and the transfer and return of information, there were some fundamental problems which caused perpetual difficulties (i.e., the definition of the child's age, who was responsible for caring for the child, accompanied vrs unaccompanied child etc.) Files became increasingly complex as 120,000 UACs became 120,000 individual cases, rather than large groups of children with similar histories. The n umber of forms for collecting information proliferated as the complexity of the files and the number of organizations increased. Efforts to find ways of collecting information to meet the needs of other organisations (i.e. for the care and education of UACs) further complicated issues. Information therefore arrived in increasingly diverse forms for data entry. 

 Tracing activities  

Individual tracing, adapted according to the particular situation, was combined with " mass tracing " , which was set up in June 1995 and introduced in Rwanda in December 1995. " Mass " tracing involved the systematic search for the parents of unaccompanied children in their communes of origin, using regularly updated lists from the ICRC database and covered almost all communes in Rwanda and various refugee camps in Tanzania and Zaire. In Rwanda, over 1,000 people were identified each month using this programme. From September 1994, families were encouraged to make tracing requests.

Under a programme conducted in cooperation with UNICEF, 12,000 UACs were photographed in the refugee camps around Goma, in Zaire, during 1995. These photos were used in the region to try and trace the children's families, and a similar project was also started in Ngara, Tanzania.

 Family reunions  

During this period, working in close collaboration with other organizations and dividing up the tasks, the ICRC dealt mainly with cross-border reunions, UNHCR and implementing agencies handled inter-camp reunifications, and the ICRC, SCF/UK and other NGOs concentrated on reunions in Rwanda.

 Mass repatriations 1996/97  


In July and August 1996, the main groups of Rwandan refugees in Burundi finally returned to Rwanda. From 15 November, in the wake of the offensive launched in late September by the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Zaire-Congo (ADFL), over 500,000 Rwandan refugees who had been living in camps around Goma also returned home. Finally, following a regional agreement, 460,000 Rwandan refugees living in the Lake Ngara region likewise went back to Rwanda in mid-December. Mass returns from Mbandaka and Kisangani, DRC were also registered in March 1997.

These mass repatriations mobilized all agencies/NGOs involved in tracing for children. Thousands of children were separated from their families on their way back to Rwanda, mainly from Zaire. In Gisenyi, during the first two days of the mass return from Goma some 1,400-1,600 UACs were registered. Most were reunited almost immediately with their family members (children and parents were repatriated at the same time and got separated on their way back). However, ad hoc procedures had to be established to deal with the emergency. UACs were grouped in transit centres at the entry points and transferred to their prefectures of origin within the shortest delays possible. During the crisis, children were registered only upon arriva l in their prefectures of origin. From there, immediate tracing and reunifications were carried out. The work was divided up amongst the many agencies involved by geographical zone, while throughout, the ICRC continued to centralize the information. Details of transfers, registrations and reunifications were collected, allowing the ICRC to know the number of children repatriated and reunited.

Further to the events of late 1996, many Rwandan refugees from the Goma area and the Bukavu camps fled towards the interior of Zaire (i.e., towards Mbandaka, Kisangani, Kindu, Kananga etc.). Some smaller groups, including a number of UACs, fled even further to Angola, Zambia, Gabon and Central African Republic. At this time, voluntary repatriations of UACs were facilitated by the ICRC. If a child was hesitant to return, advanced tracing was carried out in Rwanda, the family link was re-established through the Red Cross family tracing network, and if finally the child agreed to be repatriated, the transfer and family reunification were carried out. 

 Photo-tracing programme - "Do you know this child?"(still ongoing)  

During the mass repatriations from the camps in Zaire in November 1996, many children became separated from their families. Some were able to give enough information to be able to initiate tracing, however, others were extremely young - varying from new-borns to four/five year olds - or traumatised, and were unable to provide sufficient information for staff to start to search for their parents.

For these unaccompanied children, the ICRC, together with UNICEF, decided to start a photo-tracing programme so that parents might be able to recognize their lost children from a photograph printed in a photo album. Children were photographed as soon as possible after their separation from their family. In the centres where the children were look ed after, any important information which the children might subsequently reveal was recorded by those caring for them and copies were kept at the centre and at the ICRC delegations. The information has been stored on a separate database. Photo albums are distributed at health centres, prisons, sector or commune offices and all ICRC offices and all those who distribute them receive a special training course, while the distribution is publicized on local radio stations.

If a family member positively identifies a child in one of the albums, he/she is asked to pass by an ICRC office to fill out a form asking the parents for information about the child and themselves which can be corroborated with the details recorded about the children in the centres. Following detailed verification, relatives are asked to visit the centre where the child is accommodated and identify the child among a group of other UACs. When the child is successfully reunited with his/her family, the dossier is sent to Nairobi to be recorded in the central database.

The photo albums have given an additional boost to usual tracing efforts. They have encouraged families to become more active and go themselves to the centres to look for their children (usually it is the ICRC or the NGO concerned that have to look for the families and bring the children to them). Also, it has had other positive effects, as when an identification using the photo albums proves to be negative, parents may later make a tracing request or renew a search for a long-lost child or relative.

To date, of the 1,918 children who have been photographed and published in four photo albums and a newspaper (the fourth photo album was recently published in April 2000, containing 151 additional photos), a total of 1,200 or 63% have been reunited with their families.

 A child who is part of the ICRC's photo-tracing programme  




C, Age 8

Registered: 15.9.98 at the SCF/UK centre in Bukavu

C remembers the death of her mother in Kigulube in DRC and life in the camp with her foster family. She was hospitalised at Bukavu General Hospital at the end of 1997 for two months for severe malnutrition. In March 1998 she was again hospitalised, this time for tuberculosis, and is currently still continuing treatment. While in hospital she broke her leg. In August 1998, she was repatriated to the IRC-run Nyagatare centre in Cyangungu, and from there transfered to the JAM centre for unaccompanied children in Gitarama in April 1999, ahead of treatment at CHK hospital in Kigali. She still has a slight limp and walks with difficulty, and has been diagnosed as suffering from a minor physical handicap.


 Security constraints  

Owing to an increasing number of security incidents in 1995-1996, tracing programmes were serio usly restricted. At the beginning of July 1996, tracing programmes were suspended in the camps on the northern axe from Goma, for part of the Isle d'Ijwi (Bukavu), in the south of the prefecture of Cyangugu and in several communes in Kibuye, Gikongoro, Ruhengeri and Gisenyi. Tracing activities were also stopped in northern Burundi and were also severely restricted in Uvira. In January 1997, following the deaths of three people working for Médecins du Monde in Ruhengeri, security became an increasingly important issue. Despite these problems, throughout 1997-98 ICRC national staff tracing teams looked after tracing activities in areas which were deemed " off-limits " for security reasons. Since 1999, the ICRC has benefited from significantly better security levels countrywide, which has allowed tracing teams improved access to cover a much wider area (from 60% of the country in 1997-1998 to now almost 100%). With these changes, it has been clear that many of the outstanding cases in 2000, particularly those in areas which had been " off-limits " , can still be reunited with a family member.

 "Lessons learned" for future improvements  

In order to build on the experiences gained from its involvement in this programme, the ICRC has carried out a detailed evaluation of the tracing programme in the Great Lakes area, covering the period between April 1994-December 1997. The success in human terms of reuniting so many UACs with their families is certainly immeasurable, nevertheless, the report concluded that it was important to take into consideration the following main points in order to improve the operational effectiveness of similar future programmes:

 special attention should be paid so that the technological and implementation challenges do not jeop ardise the fundamental protection concerns of such a programme;

 the central database, although necessary for cross-border operations, was an extremely heavy working tool (more than 100,000 identities) and was not always ideal for localized tracing needs;

 the increasing involvement of other humanitarian organizations required much closer coordination and collaboration for such a programme and was vital for operational efficiency;

 liaison with authorities should have received greater attention, aiming at increasing awareness of responsibilities rather than substitution;

 emphasis on improving national staff training is key to increasing efficiency in similar future actions.



In 1997, the workload was divided up geographically between those humanitarian organizations still active. The ICRC continued to centralize information and increased the number of reunions inside Rwanda. At this time, UNHCR was responsible for repatriations to Rwanda and the ICRC met returning UACs at the border and took over the tracing activities in Rwanda. In mid-1997, the ICRC started a census programme in all children centres to find out which children tracing was still needed for (i.e. UACs still not in contact with any close family member). For all UACs already in contact with a close family member, but where a family reunification was refused for socio-economic reasons, and UACs for whom all tracing efforts had failed, the ICRC felt that it could no longer carry out further tracing for them and their details were therefore handed over to be dealt with by the authorities.

Since 1998, with the return of many refugees to Rwanda, there has been a steep reduction in the volume of activitie s, and as a consequence, many other humanitarian organizations involved in the unaccompanied children programmes have withdrawn, with their tracing activities being taken over by the ICRCThe other humanitarian organizations still actively working on behalf of Rwandan UACs mainly deal with the placement of UACs in foster families, such as International Social Services (ISS), and a few are active in tracing activities, including International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Food for the Hungry International.. The ICRC itself has restructured and reorganized those offices dealing mainly with tracing activities.



The programmes for unaccompanied children are now moving into a new phase, in which the accent is on the resolution of the most delicate cases, and the search by the authorities for durable long-term solutions as part of the development, reintegration and rehabilitation of Rwandan society.

In general, the Rwandan authorities currently encourage :

  Legal fostering  

 The Rwandan Government supports tracing, family reunification and the placement of UACs in foster families, trying to avoid assisting UACs in centres;

 Reduction in the number of orphanages  

 The Government has demonstrated its desire to close UAC centres and encourage fostering: In April 1995, there were 77 centres, while in April 2000, there were only 37 centres (the ICRC works with 27 of them). The reduction in the number of UACs in centres is the result of both reunifications and placement in foster families.

 Encouraging the return home of Rwandans living abroad;  

 On 24 April, Rwanda's new President, Paul Kagame made another appeal to Rwandans in exile to return home and rebuild the nation, particularly those still in the DRC who fled there following the 1994 genocide.

The ICRC has started to hand over to the Ministry of Social Affairs (MINAFASO) information about unaccompanied children who could not be reunited with their families or refuse a family reunification, and who they will now take charge of in the future. Between October 1999 and April 2000, details on 673 children where no further ICRC tracing work is possible were handed over to MINAFASO.

In 2000, with a much reduced caseload, the ICRC's main tracing objective has therefore focused on trying to enable the remaining UACs located inside Rwanda and abroad to re-establish contact with their families.


 Ongoing programmes  

 Rwandan UACS inside Rwanda  

Since October 1999, delegates have been carrying out censuses at children's centres and foster families throughout Rwanda to draw up lists of those unaccompanied children where a family reunification might still be possible. For all unaccompanied children, where previous tracing searches have been attempted and the name has been broadcast twice on the radio, a final search shall be made before the file is considered " closed " and handed over to the authorities. This has involved a huge amount of work to search through and cross-check the outstanding files, and classify them according to their suitability for additional tracing.

Among these children, for those where no further work by the ICRC is possible (children whose family member cannot be located after this number of attempts or where contact has been made, but for financial or other personal reasons - family member too old or infirm to look after child, or the child does not wish to be reunited), those children already in children's centres shall remain there for the immediate future while they await a decision by the authorities. Their files are then closed by the ICRC, and the information is entered in the central database and later archived, and the details are handed over to MINAFASO. In accordance with current government policy, UACs living in foster families whose final search proves negative shall remain in the foster family.

The ICRC continues to register very young or traumatised UACs for its photo-tracing programme who are unable to give enough information for the ICRC to start a search for their family members. Over the last six months more than 50 of these UACs have been repatriated from abroad, mainly from the DRC. The majority are currently staying at Jesus Alive Ministries (JAM) unaccompanied centre in Gitarama, in central Rwanda run by a church-backed NGO.

  JAM is one of 37 centres in Rwanda for unaccompanied children (the ICRC works with 27 of them). In 1999, due to internal insecurity, many parents were unable to travel to the north and north-west to search for their lost children. As a result it was decided to regroup many young and traumatised children at the centre in Gitarama and so increase the chance of one or more children being identified by a friend or neighbour when they visit the centre in search of a child.   In April 2000, the centre held 383 children (average age 10 years old), but has a capacity of 600. A total of 199 of these children were part of the photo tracing programme. Ten had been registered by the ICRC for possible family reunion and the remainder were either children where tracing was no longer possible or orphans who temporarily remained in the centre. Since August 1998, 130 children from the centre have been placed in foster families. The centre plans to continue to search for foster families commune by commune to place children from the orphanage.   JAM tries to mirror life in a Rwandan family, for which it becomes a temporary replacement. Children become involved in daily household tasks, such as cleaning, washing up, tidying their rooms, collecting firewood etc. Some 80 staff work at the centre, including two carers per bedroom). There is a creche/nursery which takes children from 3-6 years old. In April 2000, a total of 198 children from the centre were attending primary school (aged 7-12) and 25 were attending secondary school (aged 13+). Physically handicapped children are also cared for.  

 Rwandan UACs abroad  

At the beginning of March there were 1,533 UACs registered outside Rwanda, mostly in neighbouring countries for whom tracing was still ongoing (see map). However the actual figure of unaccompanied children is thought to be much higher. Over the last twelve months, while the ICRC has managed to reunite a large number of outstanding cases inside Rwanda, those registered outside the country, in particular in the DRC (which accounts for 45% of total) have steadily increased. The reasons for this are complex, but mainly depend on the prevailing interdependent situation in the Great Lakes region. (More detailed explanations for the main countries concerned are found in the next section of the report).

In general, a number of those registered do not wish to return, while others are unable to go back. Many live in refugee camps in precarious conditions and under conditions which do not make their return any easier. However, it is thought that many of these cases can still be reunited with a family member in Rwanda. As a consequence, the ICRC, as one of the sole organizations which has the regional expertise and coverage to deal with these remaining cases, has been active in collaborating with other ICRC delegations, National Societies and humanitarian organizations in the countries concerned to continue to search for the family members of children registered.

 Database and archiving  

At the ICRC Nairobi delegation eighteen local ICRC staff, supervised by one expatriate continue to process thousands of data every day (new registrations, updating and merging of existing files) in connection with the individual files of 120,266 unaccompanied Rwandan children who have been registered up to March 2000.

As custodian of these files, the ICRC wishes to preserve the information and files of all unaccompanied children who have been registered as part of the Rwandan UAC programme. Plans are ahead to archive all closed merged files, hand-over certificates and death certificates so that in the future they can be consulted at the ICRC delegation in Nairobi. This may become important in later life if children or families wish to view the records about their past or if there are issues of compensation. Eight people are due to start work in July/August 2000 on the huge task of archiving the 125,000 files in 89 different filing cabinets which will be stored in a specially adapted room.

 Staff currently involved in the Rwandan UAC programme  

In Rwanda: 20 locally hired staff and 25 expatriate staff (including " polyvalent " delegates where tracing is part of their responsibilities). In Nairobi: 18 locally hired staff and one expatriate.