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Red Crescent in Syria
Image: Reuters/B. Khabieh

Red Cross battles odds in search for missing

Nermin Ismail
November 6, 2018

Globally, the Red Cross remains an essential network for people whose relatives have gone missing and cannot be located through other means. The ICRC is searching for more than 100,000 people currently missing worldwide.


The woman was in Kenya,  her young daughter was in Germany, and neither knew where the other was — the family had been torn apart by the war at home in Somalia. But the mother wasn't about to give up. She also needed to find her sister-in-law, who she believed might be in Switzerland. Living in a refugee camp, the woman sent the International Committee of the Red Cross two tracing requests in the hopes that the global humanitarian organization might find her loved ones.

The Red Cross in Kenya passed on the woman's query to the ICRC's Swiss branch. Her sister-in-law got in touch quickly and told her that her daughter was living with a foster family in Germany. The daughter, now an adult, regularly writes to her mother in Kenya.

The organization's family links network draws upon the global resources of the ICRC and the tracing services of 189 Red Cross and Red Crescent chapters around the world. The ICRC has been helping people find their relatives across borders since the 19th century.

Red Cross finds missing people

Increasing requests

In 2017, the German Red Cross (DRK) received 2,744 new inquiries from people seeking relatives with whom they had lost contact during wars, escape or migration. The missing people were either thought to be in Germany, or the people looking for them lived in Germany. Last year, most inquiries involved people from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and Eritrea. The service was able to help connect about half of the people who inquired.

A young boy named Alireza had lost contact with his mother and sister during their escape from Afghanistan. He had last seen them in Turkey. When people turn to the ICRC, they have usually already tried to contact their relatives by other means, DRK spokeswoman Susanne Pohl said. "We look at the escape route and try to find information via all of our networks, and we also have an internet platform where inquirers can post a photo."

Alireza posted the photo, adding the words "seeking my mother and sister" — no more: Information posted on the Trace the Face platform is limited in order not to harm the seeker by falling into the hands of the wrong people, such as authorities who might want to forcibly conscript people into military service. After a few months, the DRK had found out that Alireza's mother and sister were in London.

The DRK also searches for people displaced or disappeared during World War IIImage: picture alliance/dpa/M. Müller

'Creating a connection'

With millions of people displaced globally since 2015, more than 100,000 people are missing, according to the ICRC — a post-World War II high. In the first six months of 2018, the DRK received 1,160 inquiries about currently missing people, for example.

 "We expect the level to be as high this year," Pohl said, adding that, though fewer displaced people are currently reaching Germany, many cases remain open.

Finding the missing in conflict regions creates additional challenges. Often, the ICRC retraces the routes that the displaced people took, which can be enormously time-consuming and difficult, particularly in war zones — which is why Trace the Face was launched a few years ago. Unfortunately, it is a tool that many displaced people in conflict regions can't use for lack of an internet connection. "Our task is creating a connection," Pohl said, stressing that, despite the digital advances, finding missing people is difficult because birthdates are not always correctly recorded and names can be transcribed or transliterated incorrectly from languages such as Arabic. Thousands of minors are missing, she said.

The DRK is also investigating the fates of people who disappeared in World War II. The fates of about 1.3 million Germans remain unclear. Since 1945, trying to find out what happened to them has been the DRK's other major operation. "Surprisingly, there is still an increasing number of cases brought to us by the German government," Pohl said, adding that funding for that project could, however, be suspended in the foreseeable future.

In the first six months of this year, the DRK received 4,800 queries for people who went missing during the war. Often, people are trying to find out where their grandparents died or were buried. Searches in various archives have provided answers for many families. "We have a huge name register, and can always resort to previous inquiries," Pohl said. She added that files on people held prisoner by the Soviet Union during and after the war, which the DRK gained access to in the early 1990s, had helped answer 250,000 inquiries. "That means people found out how their grandfather died or where his grave is," Pohl said, "and that is important for closure."

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