(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Children "face secondary separation" risks

Children sleep on the floor at a temple in Kyauktan some 48 kilometers south east of Yangon on May 11, 2008. Parts of Myanmar are still cut off 10 days after its devastating cyclone, the military regime said May 12, ahead of the first aid flight from the
Khin Maung Win/AFP PHOTO/IRIN

While aid agencies struggle to assess just how many families have been torn apart by cyclone Nargis, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) warns that the risks of secondary separations will increase, as many adolescents may be pressured to leave their financially struggling families to look for work, particularly given the uncertain prospects for long-term recovery aid.

Child rights agencies have also warned of institutionalising separated children in orphanages too quickly.

"If support doesn't come, many families will break down," Alex Krueger, a UNICEF child protection specialist in Bangkok, told IRIN. "You have children or adolescents who understand that if they leave, they will relieve the family of more mouths to feed. The problems don't reduce with time - they swell.

"If there is an uncoordinated relief effort, or we don't reach the most isolated communities, children are the ones that pay the price," he added.

Another threat to children is losing carers through illness and death in the aftermath of the initial shock.

"Every day, it seems, there is a new development that really puts in jeopardy family unity," Katy Barnett, a child protection specialist with Save the Children, in Myanmar's former capital, Yangon, said. "Families are desperately trying to give up their children because of lack of access to adequate food aid."

International aid agencies are still battling to assess how many children have been separated from, or left without, parents. The cyclone left an estimated 133,000 dead or missing.

Complicating the task is the inability of international agencies to reach the worst affected parts of the delta. In Labutta township in the Ayeyarwady Delta, UNICEF has identified 280 children who have lost their primary carers, but are with relatives, including 50 unaccompanied by any adults, who have been temporarily placed with foster families.

''The greatest risk for those children [without an adult carer] is not accessing the relief aid and being exposed to a much higher risk of exploitation or abuse.''

Save the Children estimates as many as 2,000 children may have lost their parents in the disaster, a figure derived in part from its experience in the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia.

"The greatest risk for those children [without an adult carer] is not accessing the relief aid and being exposed to a much higher risk of exploitation or abuse," Krueger said.

Tracing relatives

UNICEF hopes its programmes to trace relatives will supersede government plans to build new orphanages. Myanmar's state-controlled newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, announced on 21 May that at least two orphanages would be built in Laputta and Pyapon townships in the delta.

"The institutionalisation of children is only the very, very last resort if efforts to trace the family or to find relatives or people known to the child are failing," Krueger told IRIN.

Krueger said the agency had had "very positive" talks with authorities about working quickly to try to reunite children with surviving family members or to place them in temporary foster families from their community.

"What we have observed so far - in some camps - is the community themselves is prioritising the children," Krueger said. "That is very unusual. It is a very good indication. We have communities that do take into account the needs of children."

ak/ds/mw

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