The brutal and sudden nature of the expulsions created two immediate needs, both of which provided an opening for the Internet. In the first place, thousands of families were split. In the second place, they arrived in the camps without any identity cards -- all forms of identity had been taken by the Serbians in an attempt to condemn the refugees to permanent exile.
During the refugee exodus from Rwanda in 1994, radio had been used by relief agencies to reunite unaccompanied children with their families. During the exodus from Kosovo, in the spring of 1999, the Internet was also employed.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has a mandate to trace missing persons and 6,000 names were entered in the ICRC website (or alternate). Several Albanian relief agencies also set up websites for split families. One was organized by El Hilal, a Macedonia-based NGO that was established in 1991 and profiled earlier in this series. El Hilal quickly set about serving the refugees. It had 60 full-time workers in its 14 branches and more than 150 sub-branches, and was able to mobilize several hundred more at short notice. It used this network to collect over 70,000 refugee names, which were entered into a database and posted on a web site.
This data provided the raw material for another imaginative project. Working under the umbrella of the International Rescue Committee, Paul Meyer developed the "Kosovar Family Finder" project. Working with a budget of $50,000, he and several Albanian technical experts were able to collect tens of thousands of names from electronic databases like El Hilal's, and publish them in the form of printed Yellow Pages; 4,000 copies were subsequently distributed inside Kosovo and another 6,000 in the camps. Family Finder also opened a website, which allowed Kosovars to search for names of friends and family members. The site received over a thousand hits a day, but it was the combination of the printed and electronic versions that made the list widely accessible.
International relief agencies also used the web to showcase their work and raise funds. Some developed individual pages that followed the journey of their workers in the field, describing first-hand experiences in text and photo. CARE International gave a laptop to one of their local staff workers who wrote of his return to Peja (Pec) after living as a refugee. With the help of IBM and CARE, this was broadcast on the web.
The most ambitious experiment was launched by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in an effort to provide the Kosovar refugees with identity cards.
Neither the Governments of Macedonia nor Albania had succeeded (or bothered) to register the refugees in a consistent manner. This was creating chaos -- and making it hard to ensure the proper distribution of relief aid. There was also a real risk that the 800,000 Albanian refugees would return to Kosovo without documents, making their orderly reintegration considerably more difficult.
By this stage of the refugee crisis, several computer companies had spotted a business opportunity and contacted UNHCR with offers to provide computers and service in return for a guarantee of sales at a later stage. But it was left to the industry giant Microsoft to make a donation that directly addressed UNHCR's dilemma over registration.
Microsoft put together a consortium of its business partners (Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Securit World Ltd., and ScreenCheck B.V.), and made a donation of $2.4 million to develop digital registration kits capable of taking a photo and producing an ID card that could serve the refugee's needs in exile and be substituted for a permanent ID card on return.
Each kit contained a laptop computer, digital camera, specialized ID card printer, and specially designed software applications and hardware. Initially, it was hoped that the cards would have a magnetic strip that would allow them to be digitally scanned.
The results of the experiment are still being analyzed by UNHCR, but like so many innovative ideas it proved much easier to conceive than implement. Twenty Microsoft volunteers went to the camps with laptops donated by Hewlett-Packard and Compaq.
It took a lot longer to develop the registration kits than expected, because all kinds of questions had to be answered: Would every individual refugee receive a card, or just the family head? What kind of information would be needed -- date of birth? Place of residence? Occupation? Reason for flight? Language spoken? Medical details? Obviously, the type of information would depend on the purpose of the card (protection, potential employment, nutritional status, census, etc). The more information that found its way into the form, the longer it took to input by hand.
No sooner had the process started to run smoothly, than it was swept aside by the sudden return of the refugees in early June. According to one report, 400,000 names were entered in a database, but fewer than 50,000 cards issued. The information was never made public to those people searching for family and friends on the web. The experiment is now being analyzed by UNHCR, as part of a review of its response to the refugee crisis.