With the support of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe and Open Society Institute – Sofia
It could happen to anyone. Your brother or husband goes on what seems like an exciting trip to the Middle East or the Pacific. Then you switch on the TV and you catch some breaking news. There are riots in the place where your brother or spouse is, chaos reigns and people have been killed. Maybe a tsunami has swept in from the sea or an earthquake or a volcano has devastated whole towns and villages.
Where is your brother? His phone is silent. His Facebook status doesn't change for days and only tells you about the temperature at the beach. His Skype account is inactive.
When you are a foreign resident of a country, your first idea would be to seek help from your embassy. "This is the usual first reaction when a foreigner loses contact with relatives," says Preslava Lilova, senior specialist in the International Co-operation Department of the Bulgarian Red Cross, or BRC. BRC is а member of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
Actually, as they might tell you at the embassy, the organisation which takes charge of reuniting lost family members in times of war and disaster is the Red Cross.
Restoring Family Links (the people working for it call it simply Tracing) of BRC works in accordance with the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their additional Protocols of 1977. It helps everybody who has lost contact with a family member, free of charge. "As a whole, we deal with people who have lost contact with their relatives as a result of a natural disaster or a military conflict," says Lilova. "But there are instances when the connection is lost for another reason, usually a social cause. Our principle is to try to help everyone who asks for help."
The service is strictly confidential, but Tracing cannot be used for settling family or judicial disputes, especially when someone could be harmed through contact. The Tracing Service of BRC works in complete cooperation with the tracing services of other National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and with the tracing agencies in the delegations of the International committee of the Red Cross all over the world. If you have lost contact with a family member you should fill in a request form at one of the offices of BRC in the country or on www.redcross.bg. You should include all the details and be as precise as possible with everything you know about the missing person: their name, the last known address and or phone number and any other uselful information in the country where they are considered missing or have been last heard of. The Bulgarian organisation of the Red Cross will forward your request to its counterpart in the country in question and the searching begins.
"Our colleagues confirm within several days that they have received the request and started working on the case," Lilova says. "The results of the search depend to a great extent on the information given to us. There are cases that could be solved within a week or two. But there are also cases that stay cold for years. Human destiny can be very dynamic. People change their phones, addresses, and so on."
The Tracing Service sometimes works the other way around. "We've had cases when foreigners arrive in Bulgaria to look for their family members. Their last address was here but all attempts to contact them have failed. Then their families come to us for help," Lilova says. In this case the procedure is reversed. When a foreigner disappears in Bulgaria, their relatives should turn to their national Red Cross or Red Crescent Society, which will then forward their request to BRC.
How exactly does the tracing work? "It is not as romantic as in detective stories," Lilova says. "We visit the last-known address of the missing person and if we can't find what we are looking for, we talk to people who knew this person, looking for new clues. Of course, every case is different and we start from the information we have already gathered. Fortunately, we enjoy the support of the Bulgarian institutions."
Foreigners in Bulgaria have the same rights to use the Tracing Service as Bulgarian citizens. It is not necessary for them to speak Bulgarian. "We've had cases with English and German speaking foreigners. We always find employees who speak their language and who help them fill in their forms," Lilova says.
The information of 2010 is still being processed, but in 2009 45 requests were filed at BRC. The people from the service also work on unsolved cases from previous years.
How many of them were filed by foreigners? "We do not keep a record of the nationalities," Lilova says. "We treat all people who come to us equally, they need help at a very difficult stage of their lives. Our aim is to assist them no matter what their nationality."
GOOD TO KNOW
- - Find out more about the Tracing Service of BRC at www.redcross.bg.
- - The Tracing Service won't start an investigative procedure when the request is filed by someone who is not a closely related of a missing person's family or represents an institution.
- - Tracing requests cannot be further processed if it is obvious that the missing person doesn't want to contact the person who is searching for them.
- - Tracing services of the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies can provide the address of the sought person to the inquirer only after an explicit permission from the sought person.
- - Contact information about tracing offices of recognised Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies could be obtained at www.icrc. org/eng/resources/documents/misc/tracing_offices.htm.