Refugees Magazine Issue 95 (The international year of the family) - Operation ReUNite
Issue 95, I - 1994
With help from Electronic Data Services and the French computer company, Bull, UNHCR works to reunite thousands of Bosnian children and their families.
By Fernando Del Mundo
The images Paula Angelo saw on a television news programme in December 1992 were far too painful to ignore. The war in the former Yugoslavia was driving elderly men, women and children from their homes. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata was making a passionate appeal for help for the war victims.
"I was struck by the way the refugees, who were enduring the nightmare of being separated and cut off from their families, looked like any of us," said Angelo, who was then pregnant with her first child.
An employee of Electronic Data Services (EDS) in Troy, Michigan, Angelo knew her computer company could help separated families. One of her tasks was to find ways of using image processing technology.
Angelo enlisted the support of her Document Processing Services manager, Ken Dodd, who contacted UNHCR. Together with UNHCR, a programme was formulated to convert photographs and information into digitalized messages in optical disks and to distribute them in refugee sites. A computerized data documentation and registration service was subsequently put together with the leading French computer company, Bull. The EDS/Bull project, worth $800,000, was then donated to UNHCR.
Called Operation ReUNite and coordinated by UNHCR, the project covers unaccompanied minors in the former Yugoslavia and in asylum countries where they have fled.
These children are registered by voluntary agencies and the forms they fill out are fed into a CD ROM optical disk that is made available to UNHCR's partners and concerned agencies and updated regularly.
A parent looking for a child can go to the offices of these agencies and, using any compatible MS-DOS desktop or notebook computer, call up the digitalized photographs and information about missing children.
For example, if a child can only give a nickname, the system can scan the photographs of all children with the same nickname.
The first optical disk was ready in late March, featuring 500 children. A disk is capable of storing over 40,000 files - the current estimate of children lost in the Balkan war.
Financing for Operation ReUNite comes from the Soros Foundation, set up by international philanthropist and financier George Soros, to help victims of the war in the former Yugoslavia.
UNHCR has made arrangements with organizations that deal with the problem of missing children, principally with Unaccompanied Children in Exile (UCE), headquartered in Zagreb. UCE is funded by a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development channelled through the International Rescue Committee.
UCE is establishing correspondents in countries where children from the former Yugoslavia have been identified. Concise registration forms and pictures prepared by UCE and other agencies are handed over to UNHCR, which in turn sends them to the EDS/Bull computer centre in Paris for processing into the optical disks.
The service is expected to generate additional support once the British Broadcasting Corporation implements plans for a weekly feature on Operation ReUNite in its Serbo-Croatian programme.
Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 95 (1994)