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Disaster detectives: finding missing people in the 21st century

In a time when it seems everyone is connected online, it's a sad reality that family members can get separated and people still go missing.

Thursday October 13, 2016

Searching for missing people
Red Cross caseworker Sue Callender talks with a client. Photo: Australian Red Cross/Susan Cullinan

When war breaks out, families flee without making plans. Partners are split up during hazardous journeys. Disasters wreak havoc, with survivors left wondering if their loved ones are alive or dead; whether they've fled near or far.

Some people, like Red Cross client Emmanuel, simply have to run without warning.

Emmanuel was a young teenager when he witnessed something no one should ever see: the death of his father, mother, brother and three sisters at the hands of armed rebels.

Together with a neighbour, Emmanuel crossed the border from the conflict-ravaged Democratic Republic of the Congo into Tanzania, where he wound up in a refugee camp. It would be his home for the next nine years, until he was granted a humanitarian visa and started a new life in Australia.

Two years ago, Emmanuel learned that Australian Red Cross could help him reach out to his childhood home and discover if he had any remaining relatives. That brought him in touch with our tracing team, and Red Cross staff like Sue Callender.

Sue's job is to track people down across the globe. She and her team work to connect people internationally who have been separated by conflict, violence, migration or disasters. Hundreds of thousands of people remain missing globally because of such events - a number that is sadly growing.

In this unique kind of modern-day, intercontinental detective work, Sue says an old-fashioned medium works surprisingly well: printed messages on paper.

Around 2.34 billion people worldwide use social media*, but this is less than a third of the world's population, and large regions remain without any internet at all. While our tracing team use social media to locate people, paper letters sent by Red Cross have a special power: they can find their way into sensitive and heavily guarded areas like prisons, prisoner-of-war camps or even conflict zones - places the web can't always reach.

To find missing people, we use our own 'social network': volunteers and staff with the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Red Cross or Red Crescent National Societies around the world. Each year, the Australian tracing team is involved in searching for around 1,800 individuals on behalf of people like Emmanuel.

"We have a simple, two-sided piece of paper with all the details of the sender on one side, and the other side has room for the reply. This is called a Red Cross Message and has been around for over 100 years, just like the tracing service here in Australia," Sue explains.

"The person in Australia who is looking for a missing family member will write all their information on one side and they put the last known address or where they think the missing person might be on the other side.

"We send that overseas to the relevant National Society and they go out into the field to find them."

This is the process Emmanuel undertook two years ago. We collected all the information Emmanuel had on his uncle, who he hadn't seen in almost 20 years. His Red Cross Message travelled to the Red Cross office in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where local staff began their search, guided by items like a drawing Emmanuel had made of his childhood village.

Eight months of waiting followed. Sue says that caseworkers experience anticipation and anxiety alongside their clients.

Around Australia, at least half the cases we work on will lead to answers, but it's not uncommon to work with people who will never know what became of their loved one.

"This can have a devastating impact on a person. They can suffer a wide range of mental health issues, from hopelessness to sorrow, grief and the inability to move forward with their lives," Sue says.

It's something Emmanuel knows only too well. "I had no one left," he says. "You can have everything, but if you have no one to share it with, it's worthless."

But then a message came out of the blue with amazing news. It was from Emmanuel's aunt, confirming that his cousins and uncle were alive and well. After 18 years alone, he had a family again.

The first time they spoke over the phone, Emmanuel's relatives didn't know whether to believe it was him. "The way I fled the country… my age at the time… they all thought that I could have died," Emmanuel says.

"It's like I'm born again. I'm so happy."

As for Sue and her colleagues, in a job that sees some of the worst this world has to offer, there are moments of hope# - #and there's nothing like witnessing a family reconnected.

"Sometimes it's the long shots that are the best. When we have very little to go on and a lot of time has passed, but then when somebody is connected, you really get a kick out of it.

"You think, yes, this is what it's all about."