A Better Way to Trace Scattered Refugees

Tina Rosenberg in The New York Times: “…No one knew where his family had gone. Then an African refugee in Ottawa told him about Refunite. He went on its website and opened an account. He gave his name, phone number and place of origin, and listed family members he was searching for.

Three-quarters of a century ago, while World War II still raged, the Allies created the International Tracing Service to help the millions who had fled their homes. Its central name index grew to 50 million cards, with information on 17.5 million individuals. The index still exists — and still gets queries — today.

Index cards have become digital databases, of course. And some agencies have brought tracing into the digital age in other ways. Unicef, for example, equips staff during humanitarian emergencies with a software called Primero, which helps them get children food, medical care and other help — and register information about unaccompanied children. A parent searching for a child can register as well. An algorithm makes the connection — “like a date-finder or matchmaker,” said Robert MacTavish, who leads the Primero project.

Most United Nations agencies rely for family tracing on the International Committee of the Red Cross, the global network of national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies. Florence Anselmo, who directs the I.C.R.C.’s Central Tracing Agency, said that the I.C.R.C. and United Nations agencies can’t look in one another’s databases. That’s necessary for privacy reasons, but it’s an obstacle to family tracing.

Another problem: Online databases allow the displaced to do their own searches. But the I.C.R.C. has these for only a few emergency situations. Anselmo said that most tracing is done by the staff of national Red Cross societies, who respond to requests from other countries. But there is no global database, so people looking for loved ones must guess which countries to search.

The organization is working on developing an algorithm for matching, but for now, the search engines are human. “When we talk about tracing, it’s not only about data matching,” Anselmo said. “There’s a whole part about accompanying families: the human aspect, professionals as well as volunteers who are able to look for people — even go house to house if needed.”

This is the mom-and-pop general store model of tracing: The customer makes a request at the counter, then a shopkeeper with knowledge of her goods and a kind smile goes to the back and brings it out, throwing in a lollipop. But the world has 65 million forcibly displaced people, a record number. Personalized help to choose from limited stock is appropriate in many cases. But it cannot possibly be enough.

Refunite seeks to become the eBay of family tracing….(More)”