Calls for help

How a communications charity is offering life lines in disaster relief

Veronique Mistiaen

Wednesday August 30, 2000

Their houses had been torched, they had no passport, no food, no money, but the Kosovar refugees streaming into makeshift camps in Albania in the summer of 1998 all had inside their shoes a little piece of paper with a name and a phone number - a sister in France, a cousin in the US. "The first thing they all wanted was a telephone - to be able to tell their families they were alive," recalls Jean-Francois Cazenave, president of Telecoms Sans Frontières (TSF), a French organisation which establishes satellite communications in areas struck by war, floods or other disasters.

The following summer, TSF was busy providing telephone access to refugees in Kosovo when the earthquake struck in Turkey. "Within 24 hours we were in Istanbul. All the terrestrial networks were destroyed, but instead of having to drive 20km to find an acoustic drill or some other piece of equipment, we could use our satellite phones. We helped save 14 lives," says Cazenave.

As man-made and natural disasters increase in severity and scope around the globe, communication is emerging as a new necessity in disaster relief work, alongside food, water, medicine and hygiene. In response, a new type of humanitarian aid focussing on communications is rapidly developing in partnership with technology companies. "Communication is one of the most important aspects in relief work: you have to know what happened on the ground, what is needed, and plan the logistics of the operations," says Ian Bray, press officer at Oxfam. "It is crucial not only during an emergency, but also after, to provide agencies and local people with the necessary contacts inside and outside their countries."

The idea of providing satellite communications to displaced populations and aid workers came to Cazenave and his team two years ago after countless trips bringing food and medicine to Iraq, Croatia, Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo. "We realised that many humanitarian operations were not as successful as they could be because of a basic lack of communication between aid agencies," Cazenave says. "We also saw that for people directly affected by disasters, the need for communication was almost as vital as food."

TSF assembled a small team of telecommunication volunteers, and after a trial run of satellite telephony in Albania, decided to use Inmarsat satellite phones, which are the size of a laptop, easy to use and work everywhere in the world. They started with just one satellite phone in Macedonia in July 1999. Now they have about 20 - about half of them in Kosovo, where they work under the mandate of the UN High Commission for Refugees. In just one year, the charity has provided over 130,000 calls, enabling refugees to contact their families anywhere in the world, ask for aid, receive documents and find relatives scattered by war.

But satellite communications are very expensive and the needs immense - nearly 26m people were uprooted from their homes by conflicts and disasters in 1998, according to UN estimates. Because of its limited budget, TSF has to be very selective about where to go, Cazenave says.

The internet is another tool used by the international disaster relief community to exchange vital information and get aid to victims faster. "It is vital for disaster relief organisations to co-ordinate their efforts and make more of their limited resources," says Paul Mylrea, editor of AlertNet, a free internet news and communications service for aid agencies, run by the Reuters Foundation, the educational and humanitarian arm of Reuters. "AlertNet grew out of the fiasco in Rwanda where a large number of relief organisations went, but found it difficult to find what was needed. Many couldn't do much and had to leave." The service, launched two years ago, provides fast and accurate reports from Reuters journalists at the scene, complete with a comprehensive background of the situation and pictures and graphics of the area.

Original article