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Tanzania, 5 August 2015: Using mobile technology to reunite families

By Anthea Rowan

The crisis in Burundi has separated many children from their families, even in neighbouring countries where thousands have sought refuge. To help bring them back together, UNICEF is taking an innovative approach using the power of digital technology.

KIGOMA, United Republic of Tanzania, 5 August 2015 – Louis Cubahiro, 17, recently arrived in Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in Tanzania, after he fled the volatile situation in Burundi.

“There was chaos,” he says.

Louis’ journey took him by way of Kagunga, a tiny fishing village just inside the Tanzania border, where the influx of desperate asylum seekers overwhelmed the town in a matter of days. Living conditions were dire, leading to an outbreak of cholera.

Louis was in Kagunga for four days, alone, without any family.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2015-1726/Beechey
A Burundian woman is photographed in the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania's Kigoma region, for use with the UNICEF-supported Rapid Family Tracing and Reunification mobile application.

 
“When the violence broke out, we panicked,” he says. “People chased us from our homes, and everybody scattered in different directions. I got separated from my family. I don’t know where my parents are, or my siblings. I don’t even know if they are alive.”

Louis is frantic for news of his parents and his five siblings.

 
A new approach

Since the end of April, more than 80,000 refugees fleeing the volatile situation in Burundi have arrived in Nyarugusu. Over 60 per cent of them are children, including 2,684 classified as unaccompanied or separated, some of them under the age of 5.

In response to the urgent need to bring families back together, UNICEF has launched a mobile application called Rapid FTR, or Family Tracing and Reunification, designed to help reunite children and their families, as well as to register other children, using a tablet or mobile phone.

Rapid FTR is an invaluable way to register children and allocate services appropriately, explains Mac Glovinsky, Lead, Innovation in Emergencies at UNICEF Headquarters in New York, as the system can prioritize needs not just for unaccompanied and separated children, but also for at-risk children – for example, a 16-year-old pregnant mother, for example, who arrives in the camp with her elderly grandmother.

Mr. Glovinsky says that Rapid FTR has several advantages over a paper process – most of all, speed and security. “Paper is a physical thing, you need to move it around. You need to read it, collate it and then enter it into a system with which to analyze the data,” he says. “Digitized records can be shared, instantly, over the internet or a phone. And, crucially, Rapid FTR access requires passwords; paper doesn’t. Anybody can read it. I’ve witnessed sensitive police records drying out in a courtyard after getting wet.”

Because Rapid FTR can also capture a voice message and a photo on a phone or tablet, each case is compiled in a way that couldn’t be done on paper: To take a picture in the field, for example, a polaroid camera or digital camera with a printer was needed – they often weren’t – and photos, even when they did accompany a child’s report, were often affixed in a non-secure way and fell off easily.
 

Speeding up reunification

Rapid FTR cannot replace the vital relationship that needs to be built between a social worker and a child to facilitate the gathering of this important information, but it does aid the social worker in his or her job, because it provides the opportunity to record an interview that can be referenced later and it is much more portable than stacks of paper.

And because records are digitized and can be replicated and sent electronically, Rapid FTR can help to facilitate cross-border reunification.

Louis is anxious to speak to his parents. “I don’t have a phone … I really need one,” he says. “If I had a phone, I could try to talk to them, get in touch with my parents, find out if they are well, or even alive. But I have no news of them at all.”

Rapid FTR may be the thing that helps Louis and children like him make contact with their families again.

“Technology provides a unique opportunity to boost emergency response activities in the context of a crisis,” says Hawi Busa Bedasa, Knowledge Management Specialist at UNICEF in Tanzania. “The lives of so many children have been disrupted as they fled Burundi. With the Rapid FTR system, we hope to speed up reunification of children that have been separated from their loved ones.”

 

 
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