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Visiting people deprived of their freedom: from past to present



The aim of ICRC visits is to take preventive action and initiate a dialogue with the detaining authorities with a view to ensuring that the people they hold are treated humanely.


Visits to prisoners of war, civilian internees and any other individuals imprisoned on security grounds in a crisis situation constitute an important aspect of what is known as the ICRC's protection work. The purpose of ICRC visits is purely humanitarian: it is to preserve the physical and moral integrity of detainees, to prevent any abuse to which they may be subjected and to make certain that they enjoy decent material conditions of detention. It should be emphasized, however, that it is up to the detaining authorities to ensure the protection of the people they take into custody and that they can be held accountable if they fail to do so.

 In 2002, the ICRC visited 448'063 prisoners and detainees held in 1'566 places of detention in 75 countries. 149'154 of these were followed-up individually.  

 From past to present  

Ever since 1915, the ICRC has been visiting people deprived of their freedom in times of conflict. It became concerned about the situation of prisoners of war and civilian internees in the early months of the First World War, once it was clear that the conflict would be of long duration: on its own initiative, and with the belligerents'consent, it started visiting them. Its objective was to encourage the parties to improve the prionners'cond itions of detention wherever necessary, and to be able to inform their governments and families how they were faring. This practice was subsequently codified in international humanitarian law, in the 1929 Geneva Convention on prisoners of war. In 1918 and 1919, ICRC delegates also visited security prisoners for the first time in Petrograd (Russia) and in Hungary. During the Second World War they made over 11,170 visits to camps housing prisoners of war and civilian internees in the hands of States party to the 1929 Geneva Convention.

 The Second World War  

Some 11,000 visits were carried out to camps for prisoners of war and civilian detainees. A total of 36 million Red Cross parcels were distributed, 120 million letters were exchanged between prisoners of war and their families, and over 23 million others between civilians in the various countries at war. About 700,000 people were reunited with their relatives in Europe alone. Tens of thousands of certificates of detention or death have been issued since the end of the hostilities.

 The India-Pakistan conflict  

Between 1971 and 1974, 110,000 Pakistani civilians and 118,000 Bengali civilians were repatriated or reunited with their families. Lists and capture cards relating to some 100,000 Pakistani and Indian prisoners of war were handed over to the ICRC. Over 3,000 messages were exchanged every day (making a total of 11 million), and thousands of family tracing requests were processed.


A particular feature of the conflict in Cyprus in 1974 was the wide variety of activities conducted by ICRC delegates in order to restore family links. Several thousand Greek-Cypriot, Greek, Turkish-Cypriot and Turkish prisoners and internees were visited, one million Red Cross messages were sent and tens of thousands of people were reunited with their families or repatriated.

 The Arab-Israeli conflict  

Since 1967, in connection with successive conflicts between Israel and its Arab neighbours, the ICRC has visited 180,000 detainees and arranged for the exchange of 3.4 million Red Cross messages. Some 27,000 prisoners have been repatriated and the mortal remains of 400 people transferred under ICRC auspices. Family visits to prisoners in the hands of the Israeli authorities are still organized regularly, in cooperation with the " Palestine Red Crescent " .

 The Iran-Iraq War  

Between 1980 and 1990, about 13 million Red Cross messages were exchanged between prisoners of war and their families. In accordance with the 1949 Geneva Conventions, over 97,000 prisoners were repatriated under ICRC auspices, but about 8,000 are still unaccounted for.

 The Gulf war  

In 1991, national prisoner-of-war information bureaux were set up in accordance with provisions of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. The names of over 71,000 Iraqi prisoners of war were recorded, and 64,000 of them were repatriated under the auspices of the ICRC. Six years after the conflict, some 1400 files are still under consideration by the Tripartite Commission on Missing Persons, of which the ICRC is a member.

 Sri Lanka  

The ICRC, which has been working in Sri Lanka since 1989, has focused its activities on visits to detainees. To date, 45,000 prisoners have been seen and their families informed of their arrest. About 31,000 tracing requests have been received in connection with the large number of disappearances. A total of 135,000 Red Cross messages have been exchanged between civilians and their relatives on the other side of the front line or abroad.

 Central America (El Salvador and Nicaragua)  

Delegates were already visiting security detainees in the 1970s, but subsequently, as the result of events in these two countries from 1978/1979 to 1993, the ICRC expanded its activities to cover evacuation of wounded combatants, the setting up of a Red Cross message network between detainees and their families - and, in Nicaragua, extension of this network to displaced civilians or refugees in neighbouring countries - and tracing missing persons.


Since the 1970s, thousands of prisoners have been visited in places of detention of different types. A spoken message service (telephone, local radio) has been set up to inform families of the detention of their relatives. ICRC delegates have also taken various measures to deal with cases of missing persons, victims of violations of international humanitarian law, and civilians separated from their families by the events.

 Former Yugoslavia  

Over 18 million Red Cross messages were exchanged in war-torn former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995. Thousands of people were thus able to restore and maintain contact and to be reunited with their families. In addition, 44,000 detainees were visited and 17,000 detention certificates were issued. Despite all this, over 20 000 pe rsons are still unaccounted for.

During the 1999 crisis in Kosovo, the ICRC launched its Family links website on Internet : families were able to exchange 1280 Red Cross Messages through the web and 13,260 persons registered themselves to allow their relatives to localise them.

 Northern Caucasus (Russian Federation)  

During the first ten months of the Chechen conflict (1995), some 26,000 Red Cross messages enabled scattered family members to restore and maintain contacts. Since 1999, 500 detainees have been visited by the ICRC, 403 Red Cross Messages have been collected from detainees and 670 from civilian.


Since 1979, Afghanistan is facing several conflicts. The ICRC has begun its visits to the persons detained since January 1980 and has visited 25,000 persons. 97,000 Red Cross Messages have been collected and 69 000 distributed during the last 5 years.

 Rwanda and the Great Lakes region  

Following the massacres of 1994 and the mass flight of the civilian population, one out of two Rwandans is now displaced in his own country. Some 120,000 children found themselves alone, whether in Rwanda or in neighbouring countries. The ICRC and other humanitarian organizations mounted a coordinated operation to register and identify them in order to trace their parents. By the end of 2000, over 67,000 family reunifications had been organized, about 1,4 million Red Cross messages had been collected and over a million others distributed. ICRC delegates have also visited 120,000 detainees in Rwandan prisons.