Red Cross Collaboration: Restoring Family Links across North America

 Story by Elissa Maish, Southern Arizona Region, International Services

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Globally, people are fleeing their homelands in record numbers as a result of armed conflict, socio-economic conditions, disaster, persecution or other humanitarian crises.  A major consequence of these tragedies is that people go missing and families endure prolonged suffering due to the uncertainty of the well-being of their loved ones.

Since the 1800s, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has offered a key global service, Restoring Family Links, that assists in locating missing family members across international borders.  Unique challenges present themselves, however, when searching for individuals on the move.  Sometimes, it is difficult to determine the route taken by migrants on their journey, where they shelter or the last location before going missing.  Other times, a missing person may indeed be located, but access to them can be difficult or dangerous. 

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Because Red Cross Societies in the United States, Mexico and Canada and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) provide humanitarian services to similar migrant populations, it is important that challenges and best practices are shared on a continual basis.  In June 2013, representatives from these four entities met in Washington D.C. to actively discuss capabilities and practices, with specific emphasis on how best to assist in locating the missing.

The representatives from Cruz Roja Mexicana reminded the attendees that they share three international borders:  Guatemala and Belize to the south and the United States to the north.  At all borders, Mexico experiences build-up of migrant populations in cities that are unable to provide much needed basic services.   The Cruz Roja Mexicana has increased its capacity to handle cases of missing people and implemented major initiatives to support many needs including the provision of free phone service for migrants to make telephone calls to their loved ones back home, medical and psycho-social support to those in transit, and training to migrants to deter them from making the journey. Another tragic and unexpected consequence of migration is injury, including severed limbs, incurred by migrants who jump trains.  Both the ICRC and Cruz Roja Mexicana, in collaboration with local humanitarian and faith-based organizations, are working toward providing emergency transportation, surgery, prosthetics and therapy.

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Members of the Canadian Red Cross who attended the meeting advised that their migrant population travels through the United States as well as other points of entry.  Their Restoring Family Links program is robust and includes visiting migrants in government detention centers, holding dialogues with the Canadian Government on humane treatment, investigating alternatives to detention, and participating on a task force addressing the humanitarian issues around the forced return of migrants to their country of origin. They also offer migration support through programs such as “SmartStart” which teaches basic life skills to newly arrived migrants.

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Similarly, the American Red Cross has a long and successful history of providing tracing services to those who have lost contact with their family members overseas due to humanitarian crises. As part of international tracing, the Red Cross also offers Red Cross Messaging service, whereby families can exchange written messages until a permanent communication method is in place.  An extension to Red Cross Messaging involves a small grant-funded pilot project available in two border communities that will allow migrants to place free limited “safe arrival” telephone calls to their loved ones.  Additionally, the grant contains provisions to provide safety, health and sanitation items, such as soap and water-purification tablets.

The June meeting was indeed successful as it provided a road map of current endeavors and opportunities.  The American Red Cross, Canadian Red Cross, Cruz Roja Mexicana and the ICRC continue to address migrant humanitarian needs within our scope. All activities align with the mission of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to save lives and alleviate suffering, and remain consistent with the basic principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence.