Re-connecting families separated by conflict in Myanmar

Published: 2 March 2015 8:23 CET

By Mandy George, IFRC

The Myanmar Red Cross Society is working to reunite and reconnect families separated by the conflict in north-eastern Shan State, Myanmar.  In the last two weeks, intense fighting has displaced tens of thousands of people in the Kokang region. As part of the humanitarian response the Myanmar Red Cross Society deployed a team dedicated to restoring family links of those displaced in Lashio. Through a free service called 'Safe and Well Phone Calls' the society is providing phones and phone credit for families to make a three minute call to their loved ones.

Over 8,000 people have passed through Mansu Monastery in Lashio, which is acting as a temporary camp for families fleeing the fighting. Most families are migrant workers trying to return to their hometowns. Many families were broken up in the chaos of the conflict and remain separated. These families have arrived at the camp with few possessions and no means to contact their loved ones. In addition, those living near the Chinese border often have phones that can only operate on Chinese networks and are not able to call from the camp. This makes the calls expensive: a three minute phone call can cost up to $3 US dollars.

Over the last two days the Myanmar Red Cross Society Restoring Family Links team have reconnected ten families taking refuge in Mansu monastery. They have also reunited the Daw Thin Thin – who is eight months pregnant – and her two young children with husband U Than Saung after they were separated in the fighting. Daw Thin Thin arrived in the monastery camp seeking refuge on 20 February. When she heard about the society's phone call service, she was able to get in touch with her husband in Laukai Township and tell him where she was. He eventually made his way to the camp and they were reunited five days later.

“Daw Thin Thin was so ecstatic to be with her husband again. Despite her heavy pregnancy when she saw him she ran to him and then literally pulled him along to see us and tell us that they were together again,” said Lei Yin Win, Restoring Family Links officer in Mansu monastery.

“Another case that touched me was a 15-year-old boy who is alone in the camp. He was lonely, sad, and didn’t ever play with the other young people. We managed to reach his parents on the phone and as soon as he heard their voices he was a different person: smiling and full of energy.”

For those who do not know the phone number of their families or cannot reach them on the phone, the Red Cross registers them on a list stating that they are safe and well and then publishes this list in places where displaced people congregate such as monasteries or camps.

The restoring family links service is just one of the ways that Myanmar Red Cross Society is helping those affected by the current crisis. Since 9 February it has reached over 7,000 people either fleeing the fighting or trying to make their way home after displacement. It provides temporary accommodation, food, clothing, healthcare, blankets and first aid, and also offers transportation of displaced people in need of medical support.

“Daw Thin Thin and her family can now continue their journey back to their hometown together,” said Lei Yin Win. “A phone call is a simple thing, but in many cases it can make all the difference to those affected by crisis.”