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Covid-19 Conversations: Restoring Family Links

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In this series of articles, we interview representatives of different National Red Cross Societies, one pair at a time, to learn more about the impact of COVID-19 on their work, and to explore ways forward. 

Today we are joined by:

  • Florence Boreil

Head of Restoring Family Links Department, French Red Cross

  • Kalinka Yankova

Restoring Family Links Expert in the International Cooperation Unit, Bulgarian Red Cross

Restoring and maintaining contact between family members is a key activity of the Family Links (RFL) Network of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. The RFL service helps people to look for their family members or relatives when they have lost contact due to various reasons, including migration. 

In retrospect, how did you experience the beginning of the pandemic? How did the work of your department change in response to it?

Florence Boreil (French Red Cross):

The country went into a complete lockdown from March until mid-May 2020. Everything happened very quickly, and we had to adapt our way of working rapidly. Because of the social distancing measures imposed, one of our biggest challenges was the sudden switch from face-to-face interviews to phone and videoconferences, wherever possible. Moving to digital was difficult because not everyone was comfortable in doing activities, such as interviews with beneficiaries, online. 

RFL is not only about finding peoples’ relatives. It is about responding to their needs in a holistic and tailored manner. Many persons who access our service need psychosocial support, as they experience trauma and mental health problems that have been exacerbated by their difficult journeys. This type of individualised support can be much better provided in person. 

Thankfully, with the help of our broad network of volunteers, the transition to remote digital support has been smooth.

Kalinka Yankova (Bulgarian Red Cross): 

As in France, the beginning of the pandemic posed some very difficult challenges for our staff and volunteers because the restrictions came into force suddenly. It was thus key to ensure that our RFL service continued uninterrupted. In a way, as a humanitarian organisation we were relatively prepared for the COVID-19 emergency, as we have learnt and adapted the lessons from previous crises. We are used to handling change and taking decisions on the spot. 

Florence Boreil (French Red Cross):

In our case, we needed to come up with innovative ways to work with migrant communities. In cases where people did not possess a phone or had connectivity problems, we used “salamats/greetings’’ - a family message that is collected and delivered orally by the ICRC or a National Society, either during a visit or by phone, usually within 48 hours.

What was interesting though, was that our RFL messages and tools were integrated in all COVID-19 related health prevention activities throughout France.

This way we never stopped our RFL support, which was especially important in places like the informal settlements in northern France, where migrants need this greatly.

Kalinka Yankova (Bulgarian Red Cross): 

Similarly, our RFL activities were not suspended, but we had to adjust our operational support. With the help of social media platforms such as Facebook, Viber, and WhatsApp, as well as with SMS, first line responders continued to deliver RFL services so that contact could be maintained. This was particularly useful for families which have been separated, especially in immigration detention centers and quarantine zones. Dedicated hotlines were also opened.

RFL street team carrying out Restoring Family Links activities. © French Red Cross, 2021. 

What will the ‘new normal’ look like for your activities? How will you ensure care for those most affected by the crisis in the long-term?

Florence Boreil (French Red Cross):

When lockdowns have eased, we have still conducted interviews via phone or video to a great extent, except for with the most vulnerable people. We need to be cautious for the future: remote interviews are important to keep services running in emergencies like this, but this way of operating should not become the norm. 

Kalinka Yankova (Bulgarian Red Cross): 

Despite the number of migrants arriving remaining low in the first half of the year because of the pandemic, arrivals are on the rise again since August 2020. This shows that regardless of the pandemic, people continue to move across borders in search of safety.

The pandemic has forced us to improve and enhance our visibility and online presence, particularly through social media channels. We will increasingly use online RFL interviews in the future. But we need to be mindful of data protection concerns and confidentiality issues. 

Trace the Face’ is a tool that we have been using a lot. It is a photo-gallery of people looking for their lost relatives. Migrants can submit their picture and consent to share their information. We are constantly in search of new tools to improve our outreach. 

Florence Boreil (French Red Cross):

In addition to RFL, we have an extensive programme aimed at supporting family reunification cases. In this pandemic, we are facing increasing difficulties on that front too. Like the embassies of other European countries, French embassies abroad have been closed, making it impossible or very difficult to process requests for family reunification. This can be a very stressful for family members in Europe, as they do not know when their relatives will receive a visa so they can see them again.

Kalinka Yankova (Bulgarian Red Cross): 

In our experience, good collaboration with National Red Cross Societies in neighbouring countries, for example the Serbian Red Cross, North Macedonian Red Cross and the Croatian Red Cross, is instrumental. We constantly exchange information and good practices, including about RFL, which also helps us to coordinate our responses. A big key take-away in this respect is that we must work closely with national authorities and other NGOs, as the pandemic continues. 

This pandemic has also highlighted the stigma migrants experience and the fact that they are often blamed for problems, like the spread of diseases. Although this was certainly present before, fear and negative messaging certainly aggravate the situation. We will focus on this in the future, to ensure we facilitate understanding between the various cultures. 

RFL team visit Vrajdebna refugee reception center for ‘Trace the Face’ promotion. © Bulgarian Red Cross, 2021. 

What are the most pressing issues now? How is your National Society approaching them?

Florence Boreil (French Red Cross):

Maintaining and recruiting new volunteers despite the current context is a challenge for us. Being a volunteer also means working together, something which has been rendered difficult due to the pandemic. We try to come up with new ways of training and strengthening our volunteer networks, such as interactive online conferences and informal conversations via digital tools, so we don’t lose sight of human contact. 

Our most pressing issue now is to prepare ourselves for future emergencies like this. Tracing requests should be addressed without delay, amid a situation which is out of our hands. In addition, we need to be as comprehensive as possible in our RFL services and provide individuals with any necessary mental and PSS support. 

We would also like to reach refugees and migrants across the English Channel. The situation there is changing rapidly. When persons want to move on the UK, we can offer not only RFL support, but also information regarding preventative healthcare messages and preventive measures to avoid losing contact with your loved ones.

Kalinka Yankova (Bulgarian Red Cross): 

The main priority for us is to secure the relationship between people searching for their relatives, even if we are still operating under an emergency. Despite the pandemic, Bulgaria remains a transit country for many migrants. In this context, their essential needs include access to hygiene materials, clothes, masks, information, and an RFL service to let their relatives know that they are safe. Psychosocial support (PSS) is an integral part of our RFL response, which in fact should not only be for migrants, but also for our volunteers and frontline workers. For us to be able to provide all these services, we need to adequately train our volunteers and ensure robust RFL capacities under all circumstances. 

For media inquiries, please contact Eva Oyón on: eva.oyon@redcross.eu or +32 2 235 09 22