Lost and found: UNICEF software reunites families in refugee camps

The new technology has helped aid workers quickly connect stranded Congolese children to their families in Ugandan refugee camps. 

James Akena/AP
A Congolese refugee girl covers herself with a sheet at Bukanga transit camp in Uganda, July 17, 2013. A new tool developed by UNICEF is helping displaced children reunite with their families in the country's refugee camps.

•A version of this post first appeared on the blog A View From the Cave. The views expressed are the author's own. 

Sudden humanitarian disasters can separate families. The trauma is then compounded further by the difficulty in reuniting family members. That problem may soon be one of the past.

A new tool from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) provides a quick way to bring families back together. The digital registration tool called Rapid Family Tracing and Reunification (RapidFTR) helps stranded children reunite with their families.

UNICEF, Save the Children, and the Uganda Red Cross are using RapidFTR for Congolese families displaced in Uganda.

“Before RapidFTR, we would have to use paper and fill out lots of forms to get all the details,” says Fatuma Arinaitwe, a child protection officer with Save the Children . “This took a lot of time, and then we would go around with a list of names and ask people if they knew these children.”

The product was developed in collaboration with New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts. Student Jorge Just was inspired by a series of visits to Uganda to develop a technology that will connect separated families.

“A child might be on one side of a refugee camp, and their parents might be on the other side, but for all intents and purposes, they might as well be on different continents,” he said to the New York Times. “Even small distances in those situations can feel insurmountable.”

RapidFTR works as a data storage system that collects, sorts, and shares information about unaccompanied children in emergency situations. When a child arrives at a camp information is collected via a mobile phone and a picture is taken.

“RapidFTR is designed to help us quickly establish a child’s identity and that of their family, after which tracing and reuniting them becomes much easier,” says Sharad Sapra, a UNICEF representative in Uganda. “We are working very closely with UNHCR [the UN High Commissioner for Refugees], ICRC [the International Committee of the Red Cross], Uganda Red Cross Society, and Save the Children to facilitate this process among the refugees from [Democratic Republic of Congo].”

The data is then available to other humanitarian workers in the network and provides them with the ability to quickly bring families back together.  By moving from paper to digital, RapidFTR has managed to reduce the time for information to become available from more than six weeks to a mere hours.

Ten-year-old Rosete Simany of Kamango, in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, was separated from her family when fighting between rebels and her family broke out. She fled to the Busunga border post before being taken to the Bubukwanga transit center in Bundibugyo District, Uganda by a truck.

The temporary transit center provided a safe space for Rosete. She was registered by RapidFTR immediately after she was identified as an unaccompanied minor.

Three days later, Rosete was reunited with her aunt and moved out of the tent for unaccompanied children.

RapidFTR is expanding to deployment in South Sudan. Even in cases where children cannot say their own names, the use of photographs hopefully speed up the process of re-connecting families.

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