When Ivoirian villages were attacked during the post-election violence, causing hundreds of thousands to flee, many children were separated from their parents.
“I fled with my older brother into the forest. I couldn’t find my parents. I had nothing with me - no shoes, no clothes, nothing,” said Julius, 13, from Bangolo in western Côte d’Ivoire, who is now living in a host village in Liberia, Janzon Axis, 24 KM from the Ivoirian border, with a caregiver called Isabelle Baglé.
Some children ran home from their schools when they heard gunfire - only to find their village abandoned. Others fled directly into the forest from wherever they were; while yet others lost their parents or relatives en route. Most are young children, though some babies were also left stranded.
“Babies may just be left behind when people flee quickly - and by the time you go back for them, it may be too late,” said Celestine Guèye, a refugee living next-door to Baglé.
Since the beginning of the year the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has registered 400 unaccompanied and separated children in Nimba and Grand Gedeh counties in southeastern Liberia. These are either children who are separated from their parents but accompanied by a relative, or children who are unaccompanied by any family members.
Save the Children child protection manager Iris Knuppel estimates there may be as many as 450 separated and unaccompanied children in Grand Gedeh, adding that the number could be higher given that only about 70 percent of the refugee child population has been screened so far. The NGO registers children to try to find them foster families en route to being reunited with their families by ICRC.
Julius’s older brother abandoned him in a village en route to the Liberian side of the border, leaving him alone. “Then we found each other,” he said, referring to Baglé, also a refugee with three children of her own, one of them a six-month baby. Together they reached Janzon Axis which was once home to 11,000 Liberians and now hosts an additional 27,000 Ivoirians, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Julius is starting to feel at home here, said Baglé. When IRIN approached, he was helping to thatch the roof of what will soon be his new house, with palm fronds. The house is some 10 metres away from the home of Thomas Roo who has given them the land and permission to build.
“This is my new family,” said Julius, who looked down, and then said quietly, “but I really miss my mother - and my bicycle.”
Thus far ICRC has restored contact between 100 children and their families, according to ICRC. A further 65 families in Côte d’Ivoire have requested ICRC to find their children. ICRC teams are currently working to reunite the families of 15 children, said protection field officer William Monde De Zeade.
Finding a parent is always the first option. If that does not work out, then they identify other close relatives.
Tracing delays partly come down to lingering instability in western Côte d’Ivoire which makes it difficult to send out teams, said Knuppel. But identifying children in the first place has been much more time-consuming here than in many crises because refugees are spread out over some 50 villages in Grand Gedeh alone, and are constantly on the move.
“People are so spread out that logistics is a nightmare. It takes more money, is much more time-consuming and it takes much, much more effort,” Knuppel told IRIN. “We have to use two and half times the number of staff that we’d need elsewhere, to look for these children. It’s a headache.”
In the town of Zwedru, capital of Grand Gedeh, it took Save the Children over two months to identify 35 separated children. “There are 4,000 refugees amid a population of 29,000 - it is so hard to find them,” said Knuppel.
Often hardest of all to trace are the families of babies, said the ICRC’s De Zeade. “We take a photo and try to figure out where they might have come from by talking to the people who picked them up along the way. That’s all we have to go on.”
On the move
Many refugees go back and forth across the border to tend to their farms, or in and out of the town of Zwedru looking for work, according to aid agency staff. These fluid movements have made it very difficult to get accurate numbers on registration across Maryland, Nimba and Grand Gedeh counties.
ICRC and Save the Children have geographically mapped out different areas to screen children, and then try to refer cases to each other to ensure there is no duplication. All tracing cases are referred to ICRC, while training caregivers and foster families is left to Save the Children.
Particularly vulnerable children -for instance those who are being taken care of by teenage mothers, single parents, or by parents who already have many children, must be prioritized in the tracing process, said Knuppel.
Julius is slowly settling in, but he has not forgotten home. “As soon as the war is over, I want to go home and find my family,” he told IRIN.
Despite huge challenges, agencies do not give up on separated children, said Knuppel. Only this year, ICRC reunited an Ivoirian child who had been separated from his parents since 2004. “You don’t give up until you find a solution,” she said.