accessibility & help

Tracing and message

Conflict and disasters disrupt lives. In the chaos and upheaval, people go missing. Families lose contact with each other. When this happens, the International Committee of the Red Cross and various National Societies – including the British Red Cross – operate a massive and highly coordinated service that helps close family members trace each other.

This briefing answers basic questions about the international tracing and message service. For further information, visit the tracing and message section.

Curriculum links: Citizenship

Who uses the tracing and message service?

It is used by people looking for close family members who have been separated by war or by other disasters - natural or man-made. Such events often lead to sudden large movements of people, generally fleeing danger of some kind. When this happens, it is easy for family members to lose sight of each other, and then to have great difficulty meeting up again.

If the emergency happens suddenly and during the day, when children are at school and adults at work, families may be split from the start.

People fleeing conflict often travel long distances, in dangerous conditions, sometimes across borders. Going back to look for missing people can be impossible.

How large is the problem?

Enormous. A conflict might disrupt the lives of many thousands of families, meaning that tens of thousands of people will be without news of their relatives. Where millions of people are on the move, the crisis can be immense. It is not something that just happens to the unlucky few. For example, during the terrible events in Rwanda in 1994, it is said that every Rwandan lost touch with at least one member of his or her immediate family.

It may be that the family can reunite itself in days or weeks. But wars and their effects can endure for decades, and separations may last a very long time. Local newspapers still occasionally print success stories of elderly people reunited with sisters or brothers after separations that occurred during and after World War II.

Who organises the international tracing and message service?

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) takes the lead. The Geneva Conventions (1949) and their Additional Protocols (1977) gave it a special role during times of war to restore and maintain family contacts. It is backed by a network of National Societies, such as the British Red Cross.

So, for instance, someone in the UK trying to trace their relatives will initially contact their local British Red Cross Branch. After discussion to see whether their case can be handled, they fill in relevant forms. These are then sent on to the British Red Cross headquarters in London, from where they are forwarded to the appropriate National Society or to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for action.

That will depend on where the missing relative is thought to be. For example, if a relative is thought to be in Australia, the papers will be forwarded to the Australian Red Cross. But if the missing relative is in a conflict area, such as Afghanistan, the ICRC – who have a special mandate to work in war situations - will be called upon. The ICRC will very likely work with the relevant National Society – in this example, the Afghanistan Red Crescent.

Are children and young people affected?

Very much so. Just like adults, children flee from fighting or disaster, and take the road to exile. But in the general panic they may lose their way, become separated from their parents and end up in a refugee camp with no one to take care of them. Many will be unsure whether their families have survived the upheaval - and if they have, where they are living. Too often, they become prey to unofficial adoption or trafficking.

Unaccompanied children are a special priority group so the ICRC aims to register them all, wherever they may be. It records the identity of each child - name and age, parents' names, previous and present addresses - and may take photographs.


How does the system operate?

Once a person – let’s say an unaccompanied child, for example – is registered, the International Committee of the Red Cross will begin procedures for tracing their family. It might post the names of the relatives sought in refugee camps and well frequented public places. It might broadcast the names on local or international radio networks. The internet is also increasingly being used to post names.

It may launch appeals to parents who are looking for their children, urging them to contact the nearest Red Cross or Red Crescent office, and send Red Cross messages written by children to their parents’ last known addresses. Volunteers of the Red Cross and Red Crescent – and also other humanitarian organisations – may visit the children’s villages of origin to extend enquiries.

How much does it cost to use the service?

Nothing. The tracing and message service, which is intended for use by close family members only, is confidential and free. It is paid for from Red Cross funds and is highly valued as a major part of its worldwide humanitarian work. The work is demanding and the problems enormous. So too are the rewards when the system succeeds.


This briefing was written by P. J. White.