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Trace missing persons

Photos left behind by some of the millions who did not survive the ravages of the Third Reich -- ICRC frequently uses photos to help reunite families
Les efforts de recherche du CICR remontent aux deux grandes guerres (ICRC)

Tsunamis, earthquakes, and violent conflicts leave in their wake chaos and unpredictability. In these and other situations, hasty evacuations, rushed hospitalizations, and sudden deaths separate children from their parents, leaving many missing while others wait anxiously for news. In such situations, tracing - tracking down missing relatives - is vital for family reunification.

Japan’s 11 March triple disaster - a 9.0 degree earthquake followed by a tsunami and radiation leaks - presents the latest challenge for tracing. 

The Japanese government has deployed 100,000 troops – 20,000 of whom are still blocked – to lead relief efforts.  With the help of 9,500 fire-fighters and 920 police, 22,184 people have been rescued as of 15 March.

But state media reports at least 15,000 thousand more remain missing as relief workers - including more than 800 urban search and rescue workers from 15 countries - are blocked by continuous aftershocks (290 recorded as of 16 March), tsunami alerts, a growing nuclear radiation exclusion zone, a still impenetrable coastline and fires.

UK-based NGO Save the Children estimates up to 100,000 children have been displaced.

Against this multiple-disaster backdrop, IRIN asked experts about current best practice on how to reunite families.

The first phase is to find separated children, register them at the national Red Cross society, and place them in temporary families while following up on leads to the location of parents, according to Corinna Chasky, child protection adviser at Save the Children. 

The National Police Agency has established special call centres, through which guidance and support are provided to find missing family members.

The Nippon Telephone and Telegraph company has started an emergency message service where people can dial and leave messages.

Communities can be alerted to look out for missing children through radio or newspapers.

“Use information and clues from the child’s memories. Flyers, posters, and word of mouth spread messages through the local community and police networks where communication systems have broken down from the disaster,” said Chasky.


When children are found wandering the streets alone, parents and caretakers can be traced by re-walking the area and mapping out potential locations.

“Tracing starts immediately in the area where a child is found then spreads to the surrounding areas,” according to Annette Lyth, senior emergency specialist in child protection at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Children under five who are too young to provide information on their addresses can have their photos posted on community boards with messages to locate caregivers.

New technology

Text messages are a rapid means to disseminate information and restore contact between family members. Satellite phones can be used in areas left without telephones, such as early this year in southeastern Brasil where flooding and mudslides left families devastated and without any means of communication with relatives in other parts of the country. 

“Advances in technology have had a major impact on tracing, mainly by speeding up the transmission of information to huge numbers of people,” according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Central Tracing Agency.

Tracing across continents
 HAITI: Tracing the missing and the dead
 UGANDA: An app for lost loved ones
 LIBERIA: Tracing and reuniting families after 14 years of war
 LIBERIA-SIERRA LEONE: ICRC reunites children
 CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC-CHAD: ICRC closes family reunification programme in refugee camps
 DRC: ICRC reunites 47 children with their families

The ICRC started tracing in the late 1800s to alert families to the whereabouts and well-being of detained relatives. It currently relays hundreds of thousands of messages linking families back together and providing the peace of mind and closure so often absent in times of crises.

In 2009 alone, more than 253,000 messages were collected and delivered. Tracing assisted the repatriation of Congolese PoWs, and enabled nearly 200 video calls between detainees and their families in Afghanistan.

Following Haiti’s earthquake in January 2010, Google developed an open source web application Person Finder, which is a registry and message board for survivors, family and friends to post and search for information about one another's whereabouts following a natural disaster. Up until now, following five natural disasters, the registry has collected more than 200,000 names.

Though the site states the service does not review, update or verify the accuracy of data, it did not stop one user from writing in to the site on 13 March:

“My family searched for my auntie that lives in Japan on here, and it came up with she is dead. To really think that she was gone was upsetting… Moments later we got [in] contact with her and found out she was alive and well. To think moments before we all thought she was dead is sickening and this is your fault providing false info."

ICRC’s Family Links website

Within two weeks of the earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010, more than 26,000 missing people were located using the ICRC’s Family Links website where people can search for missing people, and submit knowledge on the whereabouts of survivors.

Since 2009, more than 83,000 names of people wishing to contact relatives, or people with clues about missing relatives, have been entered into the data system.

“It enables people to communicate with one another and strives to reunite separated family members, to locate missing relatives and to recover and identify human remains,” according to the ICRC 2009 Annual Report.

The website is currently up and running to find missing people from the tsunami that hit Japan following the 11 March earthquake.

While tracing has been part and parcel of ICRC activities for over 100 years, other agencies currently undertaking tracing activities include Save the Children, UNICEF, Plan International and Refugees United.

“Preventing family separation is the best form of social protection,” said Chasky of Save the Children.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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