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Tracing an island: the Red Cross reunites families in Sri Lanka
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Winnie Romeril
 
January 12, 2007

On New Year’s Eve of 2005, as disturbing images of the Indian Ocean tsunami gripped the world, American Red Cross Tracing Delegate Sara Blandford boarded a plane.

American Red Cross Tracing Delegate Sara Blandford explains how to properly fill out a tracing form as part of training for new Sri Lanka Red Cross Society caseworkers. (Photo Credit: Winnie Romeril/American Red Cross)
American Red Cross Tracing Delegate Sara Blandford explains how to properly fill out a tracing form as part of training for new Sri Lanka Red Cross Society caseworkers.
(Photo Credit: Winnie Romeril/American Red Cross)

The Setting

Two days later, Sara gathered with ten volunteers—themselves survivors—under a tree, finding little refuge from the relentless Sri Lankan heat and humidity. Her mission: a crash course on the Red Cross art of reuniting families torn apart by disaster and conflict. Her classroom: the Ampara district, where the waves claimed the highest number of lives and displaced people on this tear-drop shaped island nation that is roughly the size of West Virginia.

“Just because it’s an emergency, you can’t skim the form,” Blandford explained to her new team. Given Sri Lanka’s long history of civil conflict, she made sure the mixed group of Sinhalese and Tamil volunteers had a thorough grounding in the Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (Movement), especially neutrality and impartiality.

A Red Cross tracing team in Ampara, Sri Lanka, registers requests to find people who were lost during the Dec. 26, 2006 tsunami. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of the ICRC/Archive)
A Red Cross tracing team in Ampara, Sri Lanka, registers requests to find people who were lost during the Dec. 26, 2006 tsunami. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of the ICRC/Archive)

Nearly two years later, 32-year-old Blandford is transported back in time as she relates her story.

“I remember specific days, people, stories,” she trails off and looks away. “There were queues of people, 40 people deep, everywhere I went. There were mothers who wouldn’t eat until they knew, ‘Where is my son?’”

She abruptly sits forward, eyes shining.

“The traditional Red Cross services—food, water, hygiene and cooking kits—are lifesaving, but tracing finishes it off,” she says. “What we do for families is very much a part of alleviating suffering.”

The Challenge

Tracing is a short-hand term for the intricate process whereby trained caseworkers help separated families find each other through the unparalleled, worldwide network of Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The ICRC is the founding member of the Movement, entrusted with preserving a measure of humanity in the midst of war through its mandate as established in the Geneva Conventions.

The ICRC originally initiated protection activities in Sri Lanka as the civil conflict escalated sharply in 1989. As part of its standard operations, ICRC tracing delegates provided tracing services, especially in conflict areas where Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS) caseworkers might be in danger due to the conflict. However, after 16 years of vital ICRC tracing and intermittent conflict, there has been near-complete attrition of local tracing capacity.

By the time the tsunami hit, there were basically no SLRCS tracing caseworkers to be found in Ampara. Then, Blandford arrived.

“The fact is the ICRC often needs local support,” Blandford explains. “Increasing the number of tracing caseworkers for the SLRCS will be invaluable.”

The Worker

Blandford’s youthful looks belie her vast experience as a tracing caseworker.

“I’ve done tracing in just about every context imaginable, except protection,” she says referring to the ICRC’s tireless work of visiting more than 500,000 prisoners of war and civilian detainees in more than 80 countries.

A mother and her children use a Red Cross satellite phone to contact family members in a camp for displaced people in Pottuvil in Ampara district. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of the ICRC/Archive)
A mother and her children use a Red Cross satellite phone to contact family members in a camp for displaced people in Pottuvil in Ampara district.
(Photo Credit: Courtesy of the ICRC/Archive)

Fresh out of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Blandford started her tracing career as a caseworker at the American Red Cross chapter in Houston. She filled out forms and delivered Red Cross messages from abroad to relatives in the Houston area.

After three years, she transferred to the American Red Cross national headquarters for a five-year stint as a tracing caseworker for the West Africa and Asia-Pacific regions. In 1999, she went on her first international tracing deployment to Turkey, following a devastating earthquake that left more than 17,000 dead.

“That was the first time I witnessed mass casualties; it was pretty intense,” she explains.

That same year, U.S. government officials and the American Red Cross welcomed 11,000 Kosovar refugees to Fort Dix, N.J. Blandford was on a team of caseworkers who registered as many men, women and children as they could. They built a database and exchanged information with ICRC teams in refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania, matching families across two continents.

Immediately after the tsunami, the ICRC assisted people, like this woman in Galle, Sri Lanka, to use satellite phones to try get in touch with relatives. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of D. Glinz/ICRC)
Immediately after the tsunami, the ICRC assisted people, like this woman in Galle, Sri Lanka, to use satellite phones to try get in touch with relatives. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of D. Glinz/ICRC)

Then, the tsunami struck. After a month in Ampara, handing her satellite phone from one survivor to another as they made desperate calls to relatives abroad, Blandford returned to her work in Washington, D.C.

Her next challenge was managing the Disaster Family Links field operations for Hurricane Katrina.

“Katrina was such an important experience for me, personally, and challenging for the American Red Cross. On a disaster of that scale, it’s really hard to do a good job, really hard,” she admits.

“To come back to Sri Lanka, to support another Red Cross society and bring that experience – but also that humility – made me better at what I do. I have nine years of tracing expertise, but there’s a lot I didn’t know about this particular context,” acknowledges Blandford. “I share what I know and get to learn from the professional and personal experiences of others here in Sri Lanka.”

The Response

Blandford is now halfway through an innovative two-year project, which is being run through the ICRC and funded by the American Red Cross, to reactivate and strengthen the SLRCS’s capacity to provide essential tracing services. In the first year, a team of Tamil and Sinhalese caseworkers were placed in each of the 26 SLRCS branch offices. In 2007, Blandford will travel to each branch to build and bolster the tracing network. Using new language-specific forms, manuals and handbooks, she aims to increase their service capacity and fine-tune their skills.

The Red Cross created tracing forms in three languages to facilitate restoring the link between families. The ICRC uses canvas bags, like the one pictured above, to transport confidential Red Cross Messages around the world. (Photo Credit: Winnie Romeril/American Red Cross)
The Red Cross created tracing forms in three languages to facilitate restoring the link between families. The ICRC uses canvas bags, like the one pictured above, to transport confidential Red Cross Messages around the world.
(Photo Credit: Winnie Romeril/American Red Cross)

Early on, the SLRCS identified “migrant tracing” as an important need above and beyond the typical disaster and conflict tracing that Blandford expected. The Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment states there are 1.5 million Sri Lankan contract workers abroad. Ninety percent of them work in the Middle East, where trade agreements have facilitated the flow of “migrants” who can find employment as maids, convoy drivers and factory workers. These laborers are particularly at-risk because of the unstable and unreliable nature of many companies that entice workers overseas. Families often lose track of their loved ones after they have gone to work abroad.

“Throughout the tsunami response, this was a huge issue,” explains Blandford. “Ninety percent of the tracing response phone calls I witnessed were made to the Middle East.”

In traditional “conflict tracing,” the ICRC and SLRCS work hand-in-hand. Local caseworkers help anxious civilians in the conflict-ridden northern and eastern regions to exchange family news through Red Cross Messages and “I am alive” forms specially developed for use in Sri Lanka. The ICRC conducts daily and sometimes hourly evaluations of threats, such as bombings and shelling, and ones specific to local Red Cross volunteers, who are targeted for forced recruitment or who may be at risk due to their ethnicity. Unfortunately, the risks are high. Field movements are limited and sometimes even called off if the situation seems too dangerous.

Finally, there is the time-honored method of “disaster tracing.”

“Hopefully, Sri Lanka will never have another tsunami-like event,” says Blandford, holding her breath. “But it’s important to be prepared for large-scale emergencies and restoring family links has similarities in all contexts.”

“In tracing, we’re only as strong as our weakest link,” she continues. “The American Red Cross might have a strong and impressive tracing service, but if every single Red Cross and Red Crescent Society in the world doesn’t also have that capacity, the system won’t work.”

The Hope

As the SLRCS builds its own capacity, it is strengthening the worldwide tracing system. The Movement is developing a pool of international tracing delegates who can be mobilized to respond to emergencies around the world. This is part of a global tracing strategy being led by the ICRC and is expected to be implemented beginning in 2008.

“Ultimately, the SLRCS tracing caseworkers might travel to other countries. The volunteers here in Sri Lanka certainly have a lot they could offer to the Movement.” she envisions.

“I believe the Red Cross really helps people. If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t stick around,” she says, flashing a quick grin. “I haven’t been back to Ampara district yet—I can’t wait to go next year.”

As part of the world's largest humanitarian network, the American Red Cross alleviates the suffering of victims of war, disaster and other international crises, and works with other Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to improve chronic, life-threatening conditions in developing nations. We reconnect families separated by emergencies and educate the American public about international humanitarian law. This assistance is made possible through the generosity of the American public.



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