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Q&A with Alexander Krueger, UNICEF Child Protection Specialist: UNICEF's response to the situation of orphans in China and Myanmar

© UNICEF/Nattha Keenapan
Saw Leh Ler Shee, 12, in Laputta township of Myanmar, has not been able to locate his parents and siblings since Cyclone Nargis struck on 2 May.

Children suffer the most in disaster situations – they tend to make up the largest numbers who don’t survive. Those who do may have lost their parents or whole families. In developing countries, there is a tendency to rush unaccompanied children into institutions in the name of expedient protection. But UNICEF has learned from experience that institutions, such as orphanages, can be disastrous solutions for child survivors and the last place that promotes their well-being, says Alexander Krueger, UNICEF child protection officer in the East Asia and Pacific regional office. Here he talks about the situation of children who survived the Nargis cyclone in Myanmar and the earthquake in Sichuan, China but whose parents did not. 
 
Q. What is the situation of orphans in these two disasters?

A. We can’t yet say how many orphans there are. With some children, yes it’s very clear. But until the family tracing process is complete, we regard children who seem to be on their own as either ‘unaccompanied’ or ‘separated’ – children who are with some relatives but not their customary caregiver. In both cases there’s a possibility the parents are alive.

Until the tracing process is complete, it’s hard to say how many orphans there are. In Myanmar we only know so far that there are a few hundred separated children and less than 100 of them are unaccompanied. In Sichuan province, the Government reports more than a thousand children are separated, of which several hundred are confirmed orphans. 
The actual numbers of orphans most likely will be higher than reported numbers because in many disaster situations, extended or neighbour families take in children in need. And that is happening already. We have observed the community in some camps in Myanmar prioritizing the needs of children. That is very unusual and a very good indication. That process UNICEF supports.

However, in the months following any disaster, we typically see an increase in the number of unaccompanied children as a result of what we call ‘secondary separations’. Those are the families that break down due to the lack of access to basic supplies and relief services and/or challenges in rebuilding their livelihoods. In many cases, children decide to leave their families to alleviate the burden on their parents and go looking for better opportunities.

The Government of Myanmar is talking about building orphanages for child survivors and some unaccompanied children have been placed in institutions already. If that is clearly a temporary situation, that may be acceptable for those children. However, to make sure that institutional placement is an interim measure, a case management system should be in place – and this has not yet happened.

It is the UNICEF position that the institutionalization 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 fail. UNICEF has been advocating with the Government of Myanmar to promote family-based care solutions. Currently, a national action plan for child protection in emergencies is being developed.  A taskforce, made up of the Department of Social Welfare, UNICEF, Save the Children and World Vision has been formed to put this plan in place.

Similarly, international adoption as a measure of last resort could be considered as a permanent solution only once all other options in country are exhausted (kinship, foster care, national adoption). In Myanmar, the law has no provision for inter-country adoption. In China, a 90-day public notice is given before a child is identified as an orphan.

In an emergency situation, it is critical to identify, register and document both unaccompanied and separated children as quickly as possible to ensure their protection and that all efforts are made to find their families. Especially in a situation like the Nargis cyclone and surging waves that might have carried children some distances away from their family and even known villagers. The identifying of children carefully also ensures that genuine cases are found while not attracting false cases.

 

© UNICEF China
Children who lost their homes during the Sichuan earthquake are among an estimated 5 million people who have been left homeless by the disaster.

Q. Why is a family-based solution better, especially in these situations where extended families or neighbours have likely lost everything?

A. First of all, there should be no action taken that might hinder an eventual family reunification, such as adoption, change of name or movement to places far from the family’s likely location until all tracing efforts have been exhausted. If displacement takes place, this needs to happen in an orderly manner, with clear information of where children and families are moving to and making sure that everyone is registered.

It is understandable in areas where government has little social welfare capacity and thus few services to offer that they rush to set up an institution where unaccompanied children can be herded. And especially if they have little understanding of what they could be offering to promote child well-being.

But institutions are not good for two strong reasons: They are expensive, and they are simply not good for children. Children need to develop attachments and meaningful relationships with an adult in order to develop emotionally and socially. They need affection and respect – they need to be treated as a human being with their own needs cared for and protected; they should not be treated as a ‘unit’. Not having these relationships can be detrimental to a young child.

Older children need role models and to learn social and emotion skills, which only a family situation provides. Particularly in a disaster situation, emotional bonds offer support and a safety feeling that is the basis for building resilience. The living condition is not as crucial as the emotional and social aspect of children’s well-being. Moving children to live with unknown strangers in a new community adds additional stress and burdens on children already coping with the distress of their losses in the disaster.

What is most important is placing them within a family that offers them a situation close to what they knew before and a family that has the capacity to care and protect them. This can be done in an impoverished situation. Experience shows that if a child had a choice to stay with a known family that is poor or a wealthier family far away or even extended family unknown to them, the child would choose the known family. Stability is often what is best for a child survivor of a disaster. 

When I was in Rwanda after the horrible genocide there, we found that in that worst-case scenario, impoverished families still accepted other children – often without any financial support. If single mothers with five children can take several more children in to offer them loving care in that extremely dire environment, families in a different context can do the same – provided that they access relief and basic supplies (food and non-food items) to help them get by.


A volunteer in China comforts a little girl, trying to help her relocate family. Volunteers and mental health specialists have been sent to encourage children to play, draw and have fun.
© UNICEF China

Q.  Why is foster care preferred over orphanages?

A. What children need in these times are emotional and psychological stability. Community-based care, such as extended family or foster families, keeps children in their local culture and helps restore the sense of normalcy that they need for their well-being in both the short term and in terms of the impact on their development. This means they return to their school, their friends, their routines as best as possible, as soon as possible.

Studies show that in most disasters, only a small number of child survivors suffer clinical trauma and need clinical interventions. Shock is the more common, normal reaction. Children have their natural resilience to cope with this – and that resilience will be reinforced if families remain together and children are not separated from significant supporting relationships.
 
Having safe havens where they can get support and where they can be themselves contributes enormously to their recovery. But this can be arranged through a child-friendly space, with games, structured activities and information provided, that is set up in a community.

Community-based care is preferable to institutional care because it keeps child survivors within their familiar community and provides continuity in their socialization and development.

When family-based care is not possible, institutional care on a temporary basis is acceptable, provided that children keep the same civil and political rights as other children. But this should be temporary and there needs to be every effort made to either reunify them with family or another family solution. 

With UNICEF help, the Chinese provincial government is starting foster care for orphaned and separated children as well as community-based residential care, which they describe as a small family home-type of arrangement for around five children to avoid institutionalizing these children. 

Q. Again in this kind of situation, what type of foster care is UNICEF promoting?

A. There are a few fostering arrangements: There is the related family first of all (kinship care). Then there is traditional or informal fostering, when a child is taken in by a family that is not related but is known to the child, such as a neighbour. Often no third-party is involved in arranging these types of placement, but they are endorsed or supported by the local community; it is a traditional way of dealing with these situations in communities. As long as the foster family agrees to continue caring for the child and the child is happy to stay, the informal arrangement should be allowed to continue – with the understanding that if the child’s family is traced, reunification goes ahead.

Then there is arranged fostering, which a third party oversees, such as a government department, a religious organization or an NGO.

The living conditions should not be the primary consideration in the placement of children; if this is the case, it is a concern – UNICEF is negotiating and advocating with Chinese authorities to make sure they have a comprehensive look at children’s needs before making decisions about their lives and where they will live. Sometimes authorities look to place children from poor areas in better-off areas or families that are unknown to them. This could actually be detrimental to their development. Placement needs to be about children’s well-being, not children’s wealth. Money won’t solve everything. Children who feel comfortable and secure but live in a poor situation have a much better chance to succeed in life than children thrown into a wealthier situation where they have to adjust to a completely different environment.

How children relate to their surrounding environment and the skills they acquire to do so positively will have specific impacts on how they develop in life.

Q. Wouldn’t children perhaps find comfort being with other children who have experienced what they have – wouldn’t it be more of a guarantee to reach them with needed psychosocial counselling and activities?

A. Most institutions have very few adult carers for many children. Also, there tends to be a steady turn-over of carers. How can children develop the needed meaningful relationships with the adults in that type of situation? Also, institutions tend to be set up on the cheap – they’re poor in resources, in staffing, in supplies and most importantly, in monitoring. And most institutions function as an isolated world, with little interaction with the surrounding communities. Who will make sure children aren’t being abused by the staff? With poor resources, how can there be the needed care and protection to promote children’s full recovery and resilience?

No matter what situation child survivors are placed in, there has to be a system for monitoring their protection. This can easily be set up in communities through case workers who regularly visit them. Child-friendly complaint mechanisms and clear reporting lines are another aspect that needs to be set up in communities. This requires trained staff, but the same number of staff that would be working in an institution would be able to support and respond to many more people in a community setting. And they can be based in former orphanages and other child-care institutions that can be adapted to function as child-friendly spaces where all children can go for activities that allow them to find and exercise their own resiliency and coping mechanisms; or they can become community centres and offices for social welfare services.

Q. What is UNICEF's position on adoption in an emergency situation?

A. In principle, under emergency situations, a government should suspend or delay adoption (be it domestic or international) for a period of time appropriate to each country. Indonesia, for example, issued a temporary ban on adoption and on movement of children out of Aceh in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster in 2004-2005. The fact that children are separated or unaccompanied does not mean that they are orphans. We need a certain period of time to confirm their status, depending on the degree of family tracing and reunification.

In China, we’ve heard that more than 20,000 families and individuals from all over the country have shown interest in adopting children from the earthquake area. But the Social Welfare Director within the Ministry of Civil Affairs has said that the authorities would allow applicants to adopt orphans only after order had been restored and children were confirmed as having no family. The authorities’ official website indicates the Government is doing its best to trace families first.

The Ministry of Civil Affairs in China actually issued guidelines for supporting orphans and others left without families because of the earthquake. The guidelines give preference to relatives for guardianship, with government support. Then family adoption is to be promoted, giving preference to families who lost their child who meet criteria according to the law. The guidelines also promote foster care and community-based residential care that avoids permanent institutionalizing of orphaned children. The guidelines also require that children older than 10 are consulted to give their consent on a proposed adoption.

To respond to the overwhelmingly emotional appeals being made by those who express interest in adoption in China, the Ministry is producing a special brochure with UNICEF to explain the national law; the rules and procedures that need to be followed for any adoption; what adoption means for the child and what’s expected by adoptive parents, etc. – with a reminder that it’s a lifetime commitment and not an act of charity. 

Before adoption, a child's psychosocial needs should be responded to, and once there is adoption, there should be available support services for the children and families.

 

 
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