© UNICEF Myanmar/Khin Khin Pyone/2008
Survivors of Cyclone Nargis huddle under whatever shelter they can make in Laputta town. Laputta township is one of the worst-hit areas from the rampage of Cyclone Nargis and an ensuing tidal wave over the southern delta region of Myanmar on 2and 3 May.
Typhoons and torrential rains commonly trigger floods, landslides, damage, displacement and infrastructure loss in many countries of the region, such as China, Indonesia, Myanmar, North Korea, Philippines and Viet Nam.
Of the top ten disasters globally in terms of number of deaths in 2008, eight occurred in Asia, including the top five.
Chief among them was Cyclone Nargis, which rampaged across the delta area of Myanmar on 2–3 May 2008, leaving some 140,000 people dead, 2.4 million severely affected and 800,000 displaced. More than 50 per cent of schools and nearly 75 per cent of health facilities in the affected areas were destroyed or badly damaged. Loss of homes, forestry, assets and livelihoods were widespread. The Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA) in July 2008 estimated the total value of damages and losses at an amount close to US$2 billion.
© Asianewsphoto/Xu Jingxing
Rescuers search for survivors in the debris of a toppled middle school building in Juyuan town, Dujiangyan city.
That same month, a devastating 8.0 Richter scale earthquake hit China’s Sichuan province, in the afternoon when most children were in school. More than 120 million people in Sichuan and the adjoining provinces of Gansu, Shaanxi, Yunnan and Chongqing were exposed to the moderate and severe shaking effects of the earthquake. The earthquake left 88,000 people dead or missing and nearly 400,000 injured. The earthquake caused extensive damage to basic infrastructure, including 1,850 schools, hospitals, roads and water systems. The earthquake struck in a region where some of China’s poorest counties are located, and where UNICEF had been working with local authorities to help poor, vulnerable children and women for many years. As a result of the Sichuan earthquake, an astonishing 5 million people lost their homes, in comparison with about 1.7 million people displaced by the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster in 2004.
The Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 was triggered by an earthquake in the ocean floor that measured 9.0 on the Richter scale. Up to 285,000 people died in total, including 5 per cent of the population of Aceh province. Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar were all affected, with Indonesia bearing the brunt of the disaster. (India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Somalia, Tanzania, Seychelles and Bangladesh also were affected.)
Armed conflict and its aftermath cause disruption, displacement and death in only a few countries of the region.
In the Philippines, the formal peace negotiations between the Philippine government and major armed opposition groups the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the National Democratic Front (NDF) have reached an impasse. Factions of the MILF continue to wage battle against government forces in protest against the scrapping of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain while communist guerrillas continue to operate in the countryside. Extremists groups like the Abu Sayyaf also occasionally make their presence felt through the kidnapping of teachers and humanitarian workers. Reports of grave child rights violations, including recruitment of minors, committed by government forces and non-state armed groups persist.
© UNICEF Philippines/2007/Carbon
A Muslim mother and her child await their turn at a health center during the Days of Peace campaign in the province of North Cotabato. The province has a long history of conflict, affecting families and children in remote communities.
In southern Thailand, tensions in a region with different socio-cultural and religious values from the rest of the country have led to a violent uprising that has been ongoing for five years and has claimed the lives of more than 3,400 people. Schools, temples and mosques have been attacked and violent incidents are a common occurrence.
There are approximately 4,800 Lao Hmong confined to a camp in the northern Thai province of Petchabun, where they have resided since mid 2005 after crossing the border due to conflict with the Lao Government; at one time, they numbered around 7,500 people. They have no legal status to remain in Thailand and are regarded by Thai officials as illegal immigrants. Until 2008, they were allowed to remain temporarily within the confines of the camp (if they left the camp, they were arrested and deported). Beginning in 2008, many have been repatriated to Lao PDR. The Thai military, which manages the camp, set a deadline of 30 September 2009 for the repatriation of all the remaining Hmong to Lao PDR and the closure of the camp.
In Myanmar, conflict continues between the government armed forces and some opposition groups that are not party to any ceasefire agreements. Political tensions and limited humanitarian access to large zones of the country are still a concern for humanitarian assistance, although international sanctions and the economic environment make it more necessary than in comparable countries of the region. A renewed government offensive in mid 2009 has sent a new wave of some 2,000 people fleeing the conflict and human rights abuses into government-run camps in Thailand.
Impact from emergencies
The areas/pockets engulfed or affected by emergencies have seen devastating impacts. In many instances, basic social infrastructure, particularly access to health care, clean water, safe sanitation and education, has been weakened or damaged, threatening the survival and development of children. Family and community structures that care for and protect children have been destroyed, leaving children without their parents or separated, displaced, psychologically affected, vulnerable to disease and death and exposed to the risk of human trafficking, abuse and sexual exploitation.
Refugees and IDPs
The ongoing conflicts in the region have taken a toll on families. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are 67,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 724,000 stateless persons in Myanmar. There are currently some 135,000 people from Myanmar living in nine refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border; many of them have been there for up to 20 years. In addition, Thailand also hosts an estimated 1.8 million registered and unregistered economic migrants from Myanmar. In Malaysia, UNHCR statistics indicate that there are approximately 46,000 asylum seekers and refugees (as of January 2009); in 2008, UNHCR in Malaysia received more than 17,000 requests for refugee status and asylum – the most of any country last year. There are some 300,000 IDPs in Mindanao, southern Philippines. The protection of refugee and displaced children is an important concern for UNICEF in this region, as many governments have not yet ratified the Refugee Convention and do not recognize displaced populations.
Other areas of concern remain the recruitment and association of children with armed forces or non-state armed groups in Myanmar, Philippines and Thailand. The role adolescents and young people play in communal violence and armed conflict has to be better understood both during conflicts and in post-conflict situations.
UNICEF focus in emergencies
Taking account of the advantages of the context of the East Asia and Pacific region, where most natural disasters are recurrent and relatively predictable, UNICEF is moving towards more long-term and sustainable approaches to deal with natural disasters, especially recurrent floods, cyclones and drought, paying particular attention to risk, vulnerability and capacity analysis. This will in turn help inform and improve preparedness and effective capacity building of government counterparts and communities. Capacity building, partnership building, advocacy and knowledge management are all important strategies for both natural disasters and conflicts. The effectiveness of this focus will be enhanced by mainstreaming emergency in long-term programming, networking with regional partners and technical support.