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Friday, Jan. 16, 2009

Web site offers refugees a way to reunite

Staff writer

For Danish brothers David and Christopher Mikkelsen, it all began in 2005 when they met Mansour, a young Afghan refugee who had become separated from his family while fleeing the Taliban regime.

News photo
Connection: David Mikkelsen (left), Christopher Mikkelsen and Mansour, an Afghan refugee, pose for a photo session in Copenhagen in November. COURTESY OF REFUGEES UNITED

Mansour escaped from Afghanistan via Pakistan in 2000 at the age of 12. His family was supposed to follow but never made it, and he ended up alone in Copenhagen.

Hearing of Mansour's situation, the Mikkelsens decided to take up the challenge of reuniting Mansour with his family. But the brothers soon realized the quest was not going to be simple.

"No one had created a global registry, where refugees could register and search for their families using the power of the Internet, while remaining selectively anonymous by only disclosing information family and close friends would recognize," Christopher Mikkelsen recalled.

That led to the birth of Refugees United, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization to help refugees reunite with relatives and friends via the Internet.

Founded in 2006, the Denmark-based NGO launched the Web site Refugees United in November. It is an online anonymous search engine and database for refugees throughout the world trying to reconnect with family members and friends.

The service is currently available in 22 languages, including Swahili, Arabic, Farsi and the Myanmar language.

Mikkelsen said more languages "will be added in the near future to ensure complete access by all nationalities having to escape war, persecution, famine" and other catastrophes.

The purpose of Refugees United "is to bridge the digital divide currently keeping families apart, to create an interorganizational global network reliant on self-sufficiency and the ability for refugees and NGOs to take immediate action in the quest to restore contact between families," Mikkelsen explained.

But before the NGO was founded, the Mikkelsen brothers had to travel with Mansour to Pakistan, where he was fortunate to find the trafficker who got the family out of Afghanistan.

Mansour bribed the trafficker into telling him that Ali, one of Mansour's five siblings, was in Russia, Mikkelsen said.

The Mikkelsen brothers and Mansour flew to Moscow on Oct. 6, 2005, and the Afghan brothers were reunited for the first time in six years.

According to Article 1 of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is someone who has a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."

The U.N. High Commissioner For Refugees says there were an estimated 11.4 million refugees worldwide in 2007. According to UNHCR, they mostly were from Afghanistan, followed by Iraq, Colombia, Sudan and Somalia.

Some asylum seekers find their way to Japan, which is a signatory of the U.N. convention, but many end up being rejected due to the low level here of refugee recognition.

According to Justice Ministry data, Japan recognized 41 people as refugees in 2007 out of 816 applicants. In 2006, 34 were recognized out of 954 applicants.

Mikkelsen, not wishing to get involved "with politics or religion," declined to comment on the Japanese refugee recognition system. He said the NGO's aim is to provide "impartial help for all refugees."

"However, it should be in the interest of mankind to serve as the keeper of our brothers and sisters, which is why nations have established the protection of refugees under the 1951 U.N. convention on refugees," Mikkelsen said. "We, of course, call on all signatory nations to uphold their dedication to this referendum."

In Japan in 2007, about 70 percent of the asylum seekers were from Myanmar or Turkey. And 35, or 85 percent, of those recognized as refugees that year were from Myanmar. Mikkelsen said he hopes the Web site will be used by refugees and asylum seekers in Japan, too, adding that Turkish-language support is on the way.

For refugees and asylum seekers who have fled their home country out of fear of persecution, one key factor is to ensure that their identities and personal information do not find their way back home.

"Anonymity is indeed extremely important and has been taken into the highest consideration when programming the site," Mikkelsen said.

The Web site allows individuals to register with as much or as little information as desired.

Mikkelsen said, for example, people can put in their initials or nicknames that only family and friends would recognize, their birth year and distinctive physical features to help with identification.

A relative who finds a likely candidate can exchange messages directly with the refugee and confirm the identity by asking questions that only that person would be able to answer.

Even so, for some refugees the service may not be suitable.

"We are also keenly aware of the fact that refugees of a status where they have a well-founded fear of being tracked down due to their past, will most likely never use the system," Mikkelsen said.

Still, the brothers are hopeful the site will help many refugees caught up in situations like Afghan refugee Mansour. But the mission for Mansour and Ali has not finished, Mikkelsen said, because they have not been able to reunite with the rest of their family members.

The search for their family "embodies and personifies the endless hardships invisible to the world and voiceless refugees must endure — it is tangible," Mikkelsen said. "By finding the rest of Mansour's family, which is intensely important to us, knowledge of this problem will spread and the database will find its way to the hearts of refugees."

For further information, visit www.refunite.org

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