The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

Family Reunification

Families form a natural protective environment for all persons, especially in precarious situations. For this reason, international humanitarian law provides for the protection of family rights in times of conflict and begins by trying to prevent the dispersion of families.


However, should a family become separated as a result of conflict or flight, international humanitarian law establishes special measures that must be implemented to enable its reunification and to facilitate the work of humanitarian organizations engaged in this task (GCIV Art. 26, API Art. 74, and APII Art. 4.3.b). The Central Tracing Agency of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the international Red Cross and Red Crescent movement have a mandate that specifically includes searching for family members and assisting in their reunification. Other humanitarian organizations may also develop programs of a similar nature (e.g., UNICEF and Save the Children).

The right to family reunification is an issue that is particularly relevant to refugees. In fleeing their country, many people are forced to leave their families behind or are separated from them along the way. Refugee status is accorded to individuals and therefore may not always be granted to all members of a persecuted person’s family. However, a refugee may later apply for family reunification (based on the principle of family unity endorsed by the UN Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons, GCIV B, 28 July 1951). Such an application must be filed with the appropriate government entity in the country where the refugee is located. The UNHCR, the ICRC, or National Red Cross Societies may assist the refugee in this process.

The right to family reunification, as a corollary to the principle of family unity, is also established and protected by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Arts. 9, 10, and 22), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Art. 23.1), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Art. 10.1).

This right has also been translated into customary international humanitarian law. Indeed, the study on the rules of customary international humanitarian law published by the ICRC in 2005 provides that “family life must be respected as far as possible” (Rule 105) and that “in case of displacement, all possible measures must be taken in order that . . . members of the same family are not separated” (Rule 131). Those rules apply in both international and non-international armed conflicts.

The right to family reunification is linked to the right to be informed of the fate of the missing and the dead in times of conflict. Rule 117 of the customary IHL study provides that in international and non-international armed conflict, “each party to the conflict must take all feasible measures to account for persons reported missing as a result of armed conflict and must provide their family members with any information it has on their fate.”

Central Tracing AgencyChildrenFamilyMissing persons and the deadRed Cross and the Red CrescentRefugeesUnited Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights/Human Rights Council

For Additional Information: Draper, G. I. A. D. “The Reunion of Families in Time of Armed Conflict.” International Review of the Red Cross 191 (February–March 1977): 57–65.

ICRC. Help Us Find Our Families—Rwanda: Unaccompanied Children . Geneva: ICRC, 1995.

Henckaerts, Jean-Marie, and Louise Doswald-Beck, eds. Customary International Law . Vol. 1, The Rules . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, esp. part 5, chap. 36.

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