Orphans of the waves

Published : Jan 28, 2005 00:00 IST

The worst victims of the tsunami are children. Even as governments plan to take care of them, there are warnings worldwide of efforts to exploit their vulnerability.

RAJI (10) and Ramesh (11) are happily playing among the heaps of clothes piled up near a relief camp in Nagapattinam, the coastal district in Tamil Nadu devastated by the tsunami. At first sight the orphaned children appear to have recovered well from the tragedy. But if one talks to them, their fears become apparent. They are petrified of water, of even going near the beach. "I am frightened of the sea," says Raji, holding onto Ramesh's hand firmly.

Children bore the brunt of the tsunami's wrath. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), children account for a third of the casualty. But in some districts of Tamil Nadu , the casualty was a staggering 50 to 60 per cent. Aid organisations talk of 1.5 million children dead, orphaned or made homeless in the disaster. Numbers apart, what makes the calamity poignant are the stories told by small coffins, children desperate for help and parents cradling the bodies of their infants.

With thousands of children orphaned or separated from families, UNICEF has proposed a few priorities to save the "tsunami generation". They essentially involve ensuring the safety and health of the children, with an emphasis on clean water, adequate sanitation, basic nutrition and routine medical care. Separated children should be cared for, the agency said, adding that all relief plans must give high priority to finding children who have lost their families and reuniting them with their extended families.

It is especially tragic for the children who survived when their parents did not. In India, thousands of children have lost someone close to them a parent, a sibling or a friend. For these children the tragedy is compounded by the lack of emotional support and by an uncertain future. For, the people they would turn to in case of a crisis are either dead or themselves grieving over the loss of kin and property. Such disasters also expose the lack, or the breakdown, of social systems that provide basic health, education and nutrition for children.

The vivid experience with destruction and death brings forth a wide range of responses and emotions from affected children. Reactions directly following the event are characterised as shock. According to paediatric psychiatrists, as the experience is so dramatic, extreme, sudden and even life-threatening, it is imprinted on the child's memory. This deeply embedded event is a disturbance that the child carries with him or her at all times. Long-term consequences include fear, vulnerability, depression, anger and sleep disorders, as well as repeated re-living of the event itself.

Twelve-year-old Arti, who survived the tsunami in Colachal in Tamil Nadu, hardly speaks since losing her cousin, and she "broods for hours", according to her mother, Helen Mary. Many parents have been complaining that their children are talking in their sleep. Eleven-year-old Mani, who was admitted to a hospital in Tamil Nadu's Thanjavur district, has not spoken a word for 10 days. According to child psychiatrists, a child, who has suffered from this traumatic experience, is particularly susceptible to the development of pathological symptoms.

UNICEF Executive Director Carol Ballamy said: "It is hard to imagine the fear, confusion and desperation of children who have seen enormous waves wash away their worlds and cast dead bodies upon the shore. Children have lost all semblance of the life they knew from parents, siblings and friends at home, school and neighbourhoods. They are in desperate need of care." UNICEF has begun to support government and local communities to assess the number and whereabouts of those who are separated from their families, or worse, their kin have not survived at all. With the aid of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and government authorities, it is developing systems to identify children and reunite them with their parents or other relatives.

District administrations in Tamil Nadu have ordered the enumeration of children living in relief camps without adult kin. Simultaneously, UNICEF is also counselling more than 100,000 traumatised children in the 13 affected districts. The organisation is collaborating with the State Social Welfare and Education Departments to implement the psychological care and support programmes.

The relief campaign, according to UNICEF, must help children cope with their trauma by getting them back to school as quickly as possible and by training adults, especially teachers and health workers, to interact with children to spot signs of trauma.

UNICEF has already trained several volunteers who have started working with children in Cuddalore. Training programmes involving an average of 120 volunteers per district will be held in the affected districts. This programme will be extended to the affected districts of Andhra Pradesh.

AS part of its effort, the Tamil Nadu government has decided to adopt all the children who have lost their parents. In a statement, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa said new homes to shelter at least 100 children each would be opened in Nagapattinam, Kanyakumari and Cuddalore, in addition to the already functioning government-run homes. She said: "The opening of three new homes will ensure that no child is left in the lurch. Special provisions will be made especially for the kids. Ayahs [maids] will be appointed to take care of them. Playing materials and special medical facilities will also be part of such new homes."

The Government of India, according to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, would provide education, sustenance and support for the affected children up to Class XII. Observing that special attention would be given to their rehabilitation and well being, he said that government agencies had been asked to adopt the children and also assist NGOs in doing so.

There has been "overwhelming and outpouring" response from Indian corporate houses and individuals to provide assistance to the orphaned children as also in adopting many of them.

In this backdrop, asked if adoption laws will be diluted, Information and Broadcasting Secretary Navin Chawla said: "I think we will... ."

But this opens up a pandora's box. Adoption may be one of the options, provided the safety and welfare of the child is ensured. There can be no dilution of the adoption rules as otherwise it would be risking the lives and well-being of the children. This is particularly important considering the large-scale nexus and trafficking in children that has been reported under the guise of adoption in the past. Evidence is also pouring in from all parts of tsunami-affected areas of child trafficking.

For instance, a UNICEF spokesperson, John Budd, told Reuters that a colleague in Kuala Lumpur had received an unsolicited mobile phone text message that offered to sell children "according to buyers' wishes". Read the message: "Three hundred orphans aged three to 10 years from Aceh for adoption. All paperwork will be taken care of. No fee. Please state age and sex of child required." Budd said: "If you read that text message, and if it is true, then either they have 300 orphans for sale or they have the capacity to seize children according to orders received."

The Indonesian government is investigating unconfirmed reports of child trafficking to Java and abroad. The government has banned Acehnese under16 years of age from leaving the country. Jakarta Post reported cases of children being allegedly whisked away to Malaysia and the city of Bandung in West Java by an unnamed organisation in Medan. The Guardian of London quoted Carol Bellamy as saying that organised syndicates were exploiting the crisis in Aceh province. "Whether it is [for] adoption or exploitation purposes or sex trafficking, these are criminal elements. So it is very important not to let them get a foothold," she said.

Concerned over such reports, Sri Lanka has banned the adoption of children affected by the tsunami until further notice. "Adopting the children until a permanent solution is implemented is illegal," a government spokesman told reporters after a Cabinet briefing. "Not even a Sri Lankan can adopt a child affected by this disaster until the government has come out with its programme," he said. "Even if they are relatives, they are not expected to take children without government permission."

In a televised interview from Rome, Pope John Paul II has asked the nations affected by the tsunami to be extremely careful about adoption as paedophiles around the world will take advantage of the situation and traffic orphaned children in large numbers.

Paedophiles love disasters, as social activist Mari Marcel Thekaekara wrote in her article in The Hindu. It gives them the golden opportunity to pick up abandoned children easily. Along with the burgeoning tourist traffic, India and Thailand are hotspots for paedophiles on the lookout for vulnerable children. According to paediatric psychiatrists, there is a clear pattern. They first befriend the kids in the guise of generous "uncles" and then, after winning their trust, inveigle the unsuspecting children into unsavoury sexual acts, which the children often do not even comprehend. UNICEF estimates that over 1.2 million children are trafficked every year this way.

Past experience shows that it is far better for the children to remain within the community. But, according to activists, attempts are already being made to `arrange' adoptions. For a traumatised child to be taken away to a strange environment with different customs, languages, food habits and even possibly foreign parents would be extremely unsettling.

Around 60 child rights organisations have called for a year-long ban on the adoption of children affected by the tsunami. They say this would prevent traffickers from exploiting children for cheap labour or the sex trade. It would also enable children to come to terms with their loss and allow time for counselling.

To assume that mere affluence provides a better life for a child is erroneous. Options for the orphaned children should be sensitive, kind, humane and, most important, child-centric, addressing the short- and long-term consequences. They have suffered enough.

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