• The Red Cross Tracing service reuinites refugees like Isha with her family. (Red Cross Australia, Mourne de Klerk)
There are currently more than 51 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, many of whom have lost contact with their loved ones. From formal tracing services to social media call-outs, here's how they are trying to find their missing family members.
By
Kimberly Gillan

18 Mar 2016 - 12:39 PM  UPDATED 18 Mar 2016 - 2:23 PM

For the past 101 years, the Red Cross Tracing Service has been the go-to organisation for people looking for loved ones lost through conflict or natural disaster. With 190 Red Cross bases around the world, they're able to use their extensive network and expertise to search for missing people.

But these days those with access to mobile phones, apps and social media have new ways of keeping connected. "Mobile phones revolutionised the way families re-connect," Ali Nur, Refugee Council of Australia board member, tells SBS Life. "You'll give your phone number to a friend who is going to Kenya and within a week they will give it to someone who will give it to someone. Every time a friend or family goes overseas my phone calls multiply."

You'll give your phone number to a friend who is going to Kenya and within a week they will give it to someone who will give it to someone. Every time a friend or family goes overseas my phone calls multiply.

People who can't call family members or find them through their existing network can turn to REFUNITE, who have a database of people searching for lost loved ones. REFUNITE estimate they have helped 8700 families reconnect via their service that is available online as well as from basic phones for people who don't have access to the internet. "We have hundreds of new users register every day so even if someone does not find who they are looking for the first time they search the platform, we encourage them to keep coming back to look," Lotta Relander, REFUINTE spokesperson, tells SBS Life.

While Relander says Syrian refugees tend to remain well-connected, with their first priority after landing in a new country to find a sim card with data to reconnect with family members, the majority of refugees from other parts of the world don't have access to the internet or smartphones. "REFUNITE will continue to make our service available to the most disconnected people," Relander says. "We also have a call centre where illiterate users can get help registering and searching."

Many refugees are also taking to Facebook groups like Search and Find Your Family For Refugees where almost 300 people have shared information about their lost loved ones in the hope that sharing information among the 1 billion Facebook users will improve their chances of finding their loved one. "It's usually younger people who use Facebook," Nur explains.

But as fantastic as these modern methods of communication sound, the Red Cross tracing service remains as relevant as ever. "Because of our stance internationally, we're able to access places where others may not," Katherine Wright, Australian Red Cross International Tracing Service spokesperson, tells SBS Life. "We offer tracing to people in immigration detention facilities, in prisons and in conflict zones, which I think is what sets us apart."

Turning to the internet and social media platforms can be an excellent starting point for people wanting to conduct their own searches but Wright says it's not always a workable strategy. "In places of conflict and hostilities, there is often limited access to the internet," Wright says. "If someone is in a conflict zone they are unlikely to want to use web-based platforms and social media to connect with family because they may not want people to know where they are – that could be a security issue."

Some cases are solved within days or weeks, others take months and some sadly remain unsolved for years.

The Australian Red Cross works on 1800 tracing cases per year. People make an appointment with a caseworker and provide personal details, last known addresses and the names of people their family member might have been travelling with. "We'll send that information to our Red Cross office [in the country in question] and essentially wait to hear back," Wright explains. Caseworkers overseas will then look at birth and death records and travel to communities to speak to neighbours and religious leaders for clues into the missing person's whereabouts.

Some cases are solved within days or weeks, others take months and some sadly remain unsolved for years. "If someone hears we've found family, there's usually joy and immense happiness, plus shock and disbelief, particularly if it's been a long time since they've heard from these family members," Wright says. Sometimes the Red Cross have to inform them that the family member in question has died, which is obviously a difficult part of the job. "Even though we can't provide happy news, at least that family member can then have some closure and not continue to have a sense of not knowing," Wright says. "The hardest is probably when we haven't been able to locate the person and we can't give them any news."

With stories of mothers reunited with lost children and Australians finding Polish relatives they were separated from after World War II, Red Cross tracing remains an incredibly important service. "When we've been able to find family, it's amazing," Wright says. "It's why we do our jobs – it can change people's lives quite seriously."

Looking for a lost loved one? Go to the Red Cross Tracing Service online for more information about how they might be able to help.

Love the story? Follow the author here: @kimberly_writes

More refugee stories
The Boat
An interactive graphic novel about escape after the Vietnam War.
18 years after fleeing the war in Congo, I found my aunt and uncle alive
Emmanuel*, 34, was just 14 years old when he witnessed rebels murder his family in the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo. He didn't know if he had a living relative until the Australian Red Cross tracing team helped him find his uncle and aunty 18 years later. Here's his story as told to Kimberly Gillan.