Mixed Signals

Even in the age of smart phones and instant messaging, people can fall through the cracks — especially during crisis or long migrations.We need new ways to help them reconnect.

In the age of hyper-connectivity, in which mobile phones and internet access seem ubiquitous, what is the future for traditional tracing services such as the ICRC’s Restoring Family Links?

A parent’s desperate tweet to find a missing child can go viral and be seen by millions in a matter of hours. A refugee arriving on a Greek island can announce his survival to family in as long as it takes to send a WhatsApp message. Someone caught up in an earthquake can register their safety on Facebook with a few clicks.

So what is the future of the Movement’s tracing efforts when it seems that the ability to amplify news of a person’s safety or search has never been easier?



Despite the proliferation of mobile communications, people continue to be separated from their families through conflict, disaster and deprivations of liberty for an unbearably long time, sometimes for ever.

Helping people reconnect has been a core mission for the Movement since its founding, inspired after Henry Dunant encountered a young, dying soldier at the Battle of Solferino in 1859. The soldier had a final request: inform his parents of his fate, a message that Dunant delivered to the parents personally.

Today, it would be easy to assume that such a personal touch was no longer necessary. But

Eva Puhar, who coordinates the trans-regional work of the ICRC’s Restoring Family Links (RFL) network in Belgrade, Serbia, says appearances can be deceptive. “One of the main misconceptions today is that everyone can be found through online services… If you are not on social media or if your SIM card stops working in another country or you lose your phone in the sea… people can lose contact for years.”

So close yet so far

This can be true, even in highly connected cities. The story of 27-year-old Noor is a good example. He arrived in England in 2009 after fleeing Afghanistan in 2007, a journey during which his parents died and he lost contact with his brother. A chance visit to a Red Cross office in Manchester led him to a party of an Afghan man celebrating being reunited with his brother.

The two had found each other using the Trace the Face website, an online tracing tool developed by European National Societies in collaboration with the ICRC. The site allows people to publish their own photo as well as information on the people they seek. (All enquiries are filtered through Movement staff to verify identity before facilitating contact. The site currently hosts more than 3,500 active cases.)

Noor promptly registered. The results came unexpectedly fast.

“When I was shown his photo, I couldn’t stop crying,” Noor recalls. “I was asked to provide more information to confirm and I told them the name of my brother’s school back home and how I kept telling him that I would buy him a bicycle — he would remember that.”

For a long time, Noor had been experiencing ‘ambiguous loss’, which can occur when a loved one has gone missing and his or her fate is unknown, leaving a relative’s grieving process in a sort of limbo. “When they called me in, I honestly thought that they would tell me that he was found dead, and I was prepared for that, I just needed closure. But when I learned he was here and alive I couldn’t believe it, living in England for the last year!”

People loose contact for years

“When I learned he was here and alive I couldn’t believe it, living in England for the last year!”

Noor, 27 from Afghanistan who was reconnected with his brother thanks to the Red Cross.

If you are not on social media or if your SIM card stops working in another country or you lose your phone in the sea… people can lose contact for years.”

Off the grid

What makes reunions like this more challenging is the fact that, for a variety of reasons, many people are off the grid, by choice or necessity, even in highly connected environments. Those who lack proper residency documents, for example, might hesitate to give their names and address for use in official databases. This is one reason why the legal status of anyone using Trace the Face is not taken into consideration.

“Our aim is to have one foot on either side of the digital divide — equipped for modern-day tracing but still able to penetrate remote, off-grid areas,” says Florence Anselmo, deputy director of the Geneva-based Central Tracing Agency, which oversees the ICRC’s RFL services.

The Movement’s new strategy for RFL, to be released in 2019, aims to continue time-tested, individualized tracing efforts while embracing a range of digital solutions in order to increase the efficiency of its search techniques.

“We need better tools to search the increasingly huge amount of data available from various sources and how we can safely and effectively share and compare information between different organizations,” says Anselmo. “The ICRC has been partnering with Microsoft, for example, to pilot algorithmic-based matching tools to compare names and facial recognition technology to compare photos. We also aim to improve the digital interface of Trace the Face so people can use it on their phone software.”

Facing the challenges

Facial recognition holds some promises, although there are also many risks. Facial recognition programmes use advanced algorithms to scan images of faces for identifying features and determine the likelihood of a match.

But there are many technical and ethical challenges. For example, what happens when people change over time? If a child is missing for many years, will technology be created that adapts recognition along with a person’s physical transformation?

Ethically, facial recognition triggers alarm bells, mainly around the issue of consent and protection of those being scanned. What are the risks of using technology that essentially captures biometric information without, in many cases, the subject’s knowledge?

In the wrong hands, people could be sought out for the wrong reasons.

No wonder then that the ICRC is proceeding with caution. “We test and explore things at ICRC, but ethics and the notion of ‘do no harm’ is always high up on the agenda,” says Vincent Graf Narbel, a member of an ICRC innovation team.

For example, the ICRC has worked with Microsoft to improve the user interface and back-end data-matching using existing and well-protected RFL tracing databases. But at this point, the ICRC does not envision employing facial recognition systems that involve photos of people who have not expressly given their consent for such searches.

A similar dilemma arises with the idea of systematic connectivity — offering services such as Wi-Fi ‘hotspots’ — in places such as displacement camps. Very much in demand, this kind of connectivity is offered in many displacement camps today. Making such connectivity more universal could prevent long-term separation. But how to ensure the protection of private data that might put some or all the camps’ residents at risk? And who is responsible for protecting that data?

Data without borders

Similar questions arise whenever talking about the mass collection of the data of vulnerable populations. The non-profit organization Refunite advertises itself as the world’s largest family tracing platform.

Unlike Trace the Face, people can upload their own profile online through a website that is publicised by mass SMS marketing targeting large populations of refugees. Founder Christopher Mikkelsen thinks that privacy concerns should not come at the expense of the reach and effectiveness of the tracing platform.

“Our data is stored in Germany and subject to rigorous European data laws,” he says. “But we make a point to say that the platform is open. When companies much more heavily guarded than ours are hacked for information, it would be foolish of me to claim that we are safe, especially as we operate through SMS.”

The ever-expanding array of digital tools flowing into the humanitarian sphere still provokes the question: who is responsible for people’s online safety? Migrants and refugees, for example, are sadly a major attraction for smugglers, traffickers and criminals seeking to exploit a family’s desperation for monetary gain. Might unprotected data make the hacking and exploitation of such vulnerabilities more effective? Could a growing hub of data also be useful to repressive political regimes seeking enemies?

Clearly there are vulnerabilities. In late 2017, a tech firm broke into a software platform widely used by aid agencies and gained access to the photographs, family details, PIN numbers and map coordinates of more than 8,000 families assisted by a non-governmental organization in West Africa.

But Mikkelsen suggests that it’s patronizing to assume refugees are naïve to the risks. “Refugees are way better at defining when they are at risk than anyone else,” he says. “Technology is inherently borderless, you can never stop it. People upload geotagged photos of themselves onto Facebook. As much as you want to think you can control the stream of information in refugee camps, you can’t.”

For Anselmo, there is room for both approaches to co-exist but the Movement’s long-term work in extreme conditions highlights the essential role in tracing for international humanitarian organizations that adhere to principles and have the people-power to pick up where technology leaves off.

“Some apps and platforms are great as immediate tools. You try it and you may immediately get a match,” she says. “But what happens when there is nothing? If I was looking for a loved one, I would try everything I could, but if I come from conflict area, if the person I’m looking for might have disappeared or is dead or detained, I would also want to have an organisation that understands complex conflict environments, can access places of detention, that follows my case and is able to update me personally on its progress.”

A lingering divide

For Anselmo, there are compelling reasons why the last mile should still be done by the professional practitioners to avoid possibilities of doing abuse and harm. National Societies or ICRC delegates offering RFL can link people to a variety of services along with the tracing request, such as psychological counselling, referrals to other organizations or assistance with integrating into a new society.

This is particularly critical given that many tracing requests do not result in a positive match, which is traumatic enough. But even when someone is found, the two people may be agonisingly divided by borders and hence the initial elation may soon be replaced with anxiety over applying for family reunification. Similarly, the facilitation of contact with a family member in detention and the establishment of the fate of the deceased are processes that inevitably work in tandem with real-world human support by trained counsellors or the intervention of forensic scientists.

It’s important to remember that in many parts of the world, broadband access simply does not exist. And in some cases, many people who are most vulnerable do not have the education necessary to use social media tools.

Despite the ubiquity of Facebook, for example, it requires literacy, a smartphone and money for credit and data. Indeed, people with the greatest lack of reliable communications are the biggest users of Movement tracing services. Refugees from Afghanistan, particularly unaccompanied minors, rank among the tracing service’s top users. A combination of the deteriorating security situation and low literacy levels presents serious obstacles to following up requests for information on a missing loved one.

 “We translate each tracing request into the local language and our colleagues at the Afghan Red Crescent Society engage their network,” says Wanda Toso, the RFL coordinator at the ICRC delegation in Kabul. “They travel to the village and start asking the elder, the imam, the baker, anyone who may be able to help.”

Borderless tech

“Technology is inherently borderless, you can never stop it. As much as you want to think you can control the stream of information in refugee camps, you can’t.”

Christopher Mikkelsen, Refunite

Ambiguous losses.

How do families of people who have gone missing cope with the loss?


What happens when machines can decide who to kill?

It’s the stuff of science fiction: machines that make decisions about who and when to kill. Referred to as “autonomous weapons”, they’re already in use to some degree. But as more sophisticated systems are being developed we wanted to an expert in the field about whether such systems comply with international humanitarian law and what it means for humanity to give machines the power over human life and death.

‘Wildfire diaries’ and radical change in communications

In this episode, we talk with humanitarian communicator Kathy Mueller who produced our first magazine podcast series, The Wildfire Diaries, about massive wildfires in Northern Canada in 2017. We talk about that series, her many international missions, and the big changes in humanitarian communications since she began with the Canadian Red Cross almost 20 years ago.

The power of storytelling

In this episode, we talk about the power of storytelling to inform and inspire. “Storytelling is a fundamental aspect of human communication,” says our guest Prodip, a volunteer and multi-media storyteller for the Bangladesh Red Crescent. “It inspires us to be a hero of our own community.” We also speak with one such community hero, Dalal al-Taji, a longtime volunteer and advocate for inclusion of people with disabilities in emergencies response. “In disasters. persons with disabilities sometimes get forgotten.”

Discover more stories

Get stories worth sharing delivered to your inbox

Want to stay up to date?

This might interest you...

A pillar of strength and hope

A mother’s search for her daughter highlights how easily people fall out of touch — even in the digital age.

Check it out