Restoring Family Links



The impact on individuals, families, and communities when loved ones are separated or missing can be devastating. People will often continue searching until they know the fate and whereabouts of missing family members.

Maintaining contact with relatives, families, or friends, when migrants wish to do so, can help ensure they are accounted for, and avoid them going missing. But maintaining contact can be challenging. They may be constantly on the move or, may lack information about how to stay in touch. They also may be reluctant to seek assistance for fear of being reported to immigration officials or other law-enforcement authorities in countries of transit or destination.


Migrants and families can lose touch for a variety of reasons:

Their phone could be damaged, lost or confiscated and they no longer have any codes or numbers to keep in touch.

Becoming separated from or losing contact with family members they were travelling with.

Losing contact with family members in the country of origin or the country of intended destination due to injury, detention, or lack of access to means of communication.

Falling into danger, including due to trafficking, or even dying along the migratory route, their body, when recovered, not identified; news of their death not communicated to their families. 

Fear to re-establish contact or not wish to, in order to hide their identity to avoid deportation

The Family Links Network helps prevent people from disappearing or getting separated, and works to restore and maintain contact between family members when and wherever possible.

It also tries to help people find out what happened to loved ones reported missing. To better serve migrants and their families, the Network has adapted its services to their specific needs and to the challenges of restoring family links across numerous borders.

A recent RFL assessment conducted in Europe found that: 

Outreach and information-sharing is key

Migrants were often not aware of the risk of family separation and, though generally familiar with the RCRC, were often not aware of RFL services. As a result they  did not seek help when separated.

Connectivity is crucial

Providing connectivity to migrants as early as possible on arrival is crucial to avoid separation or reconnect families, as is the presence of equipped volunteers to help or support them. 


Preventing separation: Smartphone

The smartphone emerged as the main tool in preventing separation and maintaining contact with family or friends, especially via social networks like Facebook.  However, many migrants did not foresee the risk that their smartphone might be damaged, lost or confiscated, and did not back up codes or numbers so they could maintain contact.

Thinking about RFL services in relation to HSPs

HSPs are ideal locations for RFL services or referrals. They can be an entry point for RFL and facilitate far more contact with migrants than might otherwise be the case.

These activities are the responsibility of RFL experts and practitioners, be it at ICRC or at the National Society level.

RFL practitioner activities:

Assessment of needs

Definition of what constitutes appropriate “safe access to RFL services” for migrants at HSPs

Identification of appropriate tools for use at HSPs

Targeted responses to, and actions in support of, specific vulnerable groups

Think about services that might link with RFL services and connect them where possible. For example, if your NS supports refugees or migrants in family reunion, (re)integration or tracking and obtaining identity documents, these are all services that people may wish to use once they have reconnected with their families or vice versa. Put together a brochure or document that lists related services and ensure they are available at the HSP. 

Telephone services should be available at the HSP. In addition, HSPs should have access to WiFi to enable people to reach out to their loved ones directly or through social media. Don’t forget to provide charging stations so people can continue to use their smartphones! 

Register and follow up individuals, especially vulnerable people such as unaccompanied or separated children, elderly people, migrants with health problems.

HSPs can be an important entry point for people seeking to reunite their families, and an HSP is an excellent place to provide information about what help an NS can offer. However, as attitudes toward migration have hardened, pathways to family reunification have become increasingly challenging and  time-consuming, requiring confidentiality and privacy. An HSP may not be the right environment for the full activity. 

Reunite families & support family reunification for vulnerable people, especially unaccompanied minors

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It is critical to use HSPs as a way to sensitise migrants about this important service provided by the Movement. Even if they don’t need it themselves, they may meet up with someone who does, and it can change his/her life. It is important for them to know that this service is available to them wherever they are, and how they can find it. 

It is vital to be alive to the risks associated with any activities involving people’s identities, particularly if they are travelling without documents or making use of smugglers. 

Ensure you are following the principle of data minimisation – collecting only the data you absolutely need – obtain informed consent for the collection, usage and storing of data, and safeguard data to ensure it cannot be either stolen or used against the interest of the migrant. 

Sometimes traffickers are parents/relatives. Before launching a restoring family links procedure, assess the individual needs of the victim and consider the possible relationship to and/or dependence on the offender.

Delivering effective and efficient Restoring Family Links (RFL) services requires the collection and processing of large amounts of personal data.

Before services are offered to migrants, they must be given information on RFL, including the tracing process and the use of their data.

It is also important to respect the wishes of migrants and ensure their data is processed lawfully, i.e. pursuant to a lawful basis. Consent is the most well-known lawful basis for data processing.

However, it is impossible to obtain informed and freely-given consent from people being sought by family members, and very difficult to obtain it from vulnerable enquirers.

Alternative lawful bases to consent, such as public interest or vital interest, can also be relied upon when processing data for RFL purposes. 

A Restoring Family Links Code of Conduct on Data Protection was adopted in 2015 to guarantee the right to privacy and the protection of personal data of individuals using these services. Data Protection principles are also contained in a Resolution approved by the States during the 33rd IC and in the RFL Strategy for the Movement adopted in 2019. 

Key Resources

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