Family tracing and reunification

Children separated from their parents and families are at increased risk of violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect. The basic assumption, until tracing efforts demonstrate otherwise, should be that a child has someone with whom he or she can be reunited.

When should we use family tracing and reunification?

  • In any emergency situation where children are unaccompanied and/or have been separated from parents and caregivers
  • Tracing and reunification should be started immediately,within 48 hours of the emergency

A multi­-agency approach is essential in conducting effective tracing and reunification activities. Within one week of the emergency, the relevant government body and child protection working group (or similar coordination structure) should have agreed on standardised registration forms and draft operating procedures for identification, documentation, tracing and reunification (IDTR). Therefore it’s likely that local partners are likely to be able to play a role in supporting aspects of this process, rather than initiating the system.

Programmes must be based on an understanding of:

  • The main reasons for separation
  • The locations where separation is most likely to occur
  • The amount/scale of separation
  • The main places where people would go to search for a child who has gone missing
  • The main ways in which people receive information (e.g. word of mouth, radio, loudspeaker announcements)

Ways to support family tracing and reunification:

Immediate reunification

For children recently and accidentally separated, undertake immediate actions to locate and reunify the child with his or her parents or customary caregivers, where it is in the child’s best interest. Ensure children’s views are heard and that they have access to available basic provisions for their survival, care and protection.

Prevent further family separation

  • Base programming on an understanding of the main reasons for separation
UASC diagram
Save the Children, Alternative Care in Emergencies Toolkit
  • Ensure that families are not separated by processes of giving humanitarian assistance or during exercises to relocate populations
  • Provision of support for unaccompanied or separated children should be carried out in such a way that it does not create incentives for families to register their children as separated
  • Helping families to receive access to basic services such as food, shelter, education or livelihood opportunities can reduce the risk of family separation since these pressures can prompt children to leave their families or cause caregivers to abandon children, hand their care over to organisations, or send them to live with extended family members
  • Make sure that no action is taken that can interfere with tracing efforts, such as placing the child far from his/her community, changing the child’s name, disposing of items the child is found in possession of or not informing tracing agents of any moves
  • Assess all children entering care with appropriate gatekeeping measures to ensure that only children with absolutely no other option will be placed in out-of-home care
  • Promote birth registration

Set up places where separated children and parents of missing children can register

  • Registration and documentation of unaccompanied and separated children should be carried out by trained staff, in a way that avoids causing children unecessary distress and which does not lead to further separations
  • The Inter-Agency Working Group on Unaccompanied and Separated Children has agreed common forms for registering children and documenting family tracing needs
  • Liaise with agencies involved in tracing and reunification and support affected children and families to access registration procedures

Information sharing and awareness

  • Communities should be informed of practical measures to avoid ‘losing their children’such as attaching identification tags to babies and young children
  • Teaching children vital information about their family identity and the location of emergency meeting points
  • Explain that alternative care should only be for children who do not have anyone else to care for them, and the focus on the interim care response will be to locate and help children to decide to return to their families as soon as possible
  • Advise on what to do and who to contact in the event that separation occurs

Provide psychosocial support for separated children and their families

See ICRC, Psychosocial support for people separated from family members: Training Module (2014)

Provide interim care

See interim and alternative care

Support for tracing

Tracing is the process of searching for a child’s primary legal or usual caregivers and other family members. The aim of tracing is to find a long-term solution that is in the child’s best interests, which usually means reuniting the child with their parents or other close relatives. It also refers to the search for children whose parents are looking for them.

  • Support tracing through using community spaces for posters, photo boards and meetings
  • Social workers may support tracing through managing individual cases, and actively searching for family members in places of origin or separation

Support for family reunification

The child, family and community should be prepared for the return of the child. Reuniting children should be carried out in line with the legal framework of the country. Support should take a community-based approach, and any material help given should be agreed between organisations.

  • It is essential to verify the claimed relationship and comfirm the willingness of the child and the family member to be reunited – it is essential to carry out a best interest assessment to make sure that both the child and the parents are willing and able to reunite, and that an action plan has been developed to support the child’s move back into the family.
  • Depending on the child’s history in the family or the cause of the separation, it may be necessary and appropriate to mediate between the child and family member. Some time may be required for this, or to determine whether reunification with parents or adult siblings or placement with a relative is in the child’s best interests.

Follow up

Long term separation or changes in a family’s circumstances caused by conflict or chronic poverty can lead to difficulties in the reintegration process. Ongoing follow up should be carried out, supplemented by community-based monitoring.

Additional tools and resources

The information on this page is primarily taken from the Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action (Standard 13: Unaccompanied and Separated Children), the Inter-Agency Guidelines on Unaccompanied and Separated Children (UASC), The Alternative Care in Emergencies Toolkit and ARC Critical Issue Module 6: Separated children

Additional tools and resources for family tracing and reunification are available here


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