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Ray of hope for illegal migrants

Thousands of Indian families can now use Red Cross messages to try and locate migrant kin, reports Neelesh Misra.
Hindustan Times | By Neelesh Misra
UPDATED ON MAY 22, 2008 10:21 AM IST

Prussian soldiers used them in the 19th century, Bangladeshi cyclone victims have reunited because of them, and militants in Kashmiri jails use them all the time to send word home that they are OK.

Families in Punjab’s rural heartland or Kerala’s hinterland can use them now. Red Cross Messages — a tool used since 1870 to exchange word of well-being between desperate, separated families and their kin after war and natural disasters, can now be used by tens of thousands of Indian families to seek out those who migrated to other lands – never to be heard of again.

From the United States to Ukraine, Indians are in jail in faraway countries for illegal immigration; many tear up passports to avoid being deported. Many others lose their identification papers as they are transported in wobbly boats across choppy seas, in caravans across deserts, in oil tankers and even curled up in suitcases. All that is part of the worldwide business of human smuggling worth billions of dollars, believed to be the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world.

Red Cross and Red Crescent workers in 15 countries are putting in place measures to transfer information from the families to the detainees they will seek out – after overcoming problems of technology and language. That could involve connecting a family in a Punjab village who know only Punjabi, to an Arabic-speaking Red Cross official in, say, Qatar.

The messages are generally written personally by those separated. Red Cross workers and volunteers then use their access to try and locate the missing and deliver them.

As a non-partisan agency, the International Committee of the Red Cross has access to detainees in most countries around the world. Millions of Red Cross messages have been exchanged over the past 140 years, and thousands of people reunited.

"Migration is a new dimension in the globalised world, sometime leading to loss of contact between family members," Vincent Nicod, South Asia chief of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told HT.

"Last week there was a meeting in Delhi between several national societies from northern Europe, South Asia and Southeast Asia, the West Asian countries and Canada," Nicod said. "The national societies sat together to see how to better exploit technological development — Internet, satellite, etc, to help the big number of people who find themselves sometimes isolated in foreign countries, without any possibility of contacting people back home."

Red Cross officials from Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Britain, Canada and the Red Cross headquarters in Geneva were among those who met in New Delhi.

An estimated 10 million Indians work abroad. Indian migrants sent home $27 billion (Rs 1.08 lakh crore) in 2007, according to a World Bank study. That's the biggest earnings by expatriates of any country, including China. But thousands do no make it. Illegal immigrants from India are in prison in several countries around the world, including France, Spain, Panama, Hong Kong, Ukraine, Greece, Italy and Poland.

"There are in several places in Europe, camps of people who get arrested by countries of transit, when lose or destroy ID and documentation, and have no possibility to get in touch with families," Nicod said.

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