Sri Lanka’s missing children
Jhoncy sits in the shaded courtyard of a children’s home, alone in quiet thought. Understandably, she has a lot on her mind. As we arrive in view, Jhoncy gets up from her chair and wanders over to greet us. We shake hands and she looks us in the eye. Her first question is: “Can you help me find my brother?” More than two years have passed since she last heard of him. Jhonson, who should be 17-years-old, has disappeared. Jhoncy’s quest to know what has happened to him has become a deep, lingering pain.
Family Tracing Unit
Since December, 2009, UNICEF has supported the Family Tracing Unit, based in Vavuniya, northern Sri Lanka, in order to try to help families such as Jhoncy’s, who were separated during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s conflict. It’s a joint venture with the government’s probation service. Five officers have been trained in family tracing skills. UNICEF has sustained family tracing work undertaken by the local government’s probation service.
This service had already reunified more than 600 children soon after the conflict ended in May, 2009. UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Saji Thomas said: “In collaboration with the government, it is important that we address the needs of the most vulnerable. This includes trying to locate children who are unaccounted for, and supporting their families who are often beside themselves wondering what has happened to their sons and daughters.”
The Family Tracing Unit currently has 676 missing children on its files. Of those, 29 have been reunited with family and a further 13 children have been identified and are in the process of being reunified with their parents or relatives. Another 34 children’s names have found matches in the database and verification in terms of locating the children is in progress. Much work tracing and reuniting children and families remains to be done.
Reports suggest 64 per cent of those who have disappeared were recruited by the Tamil Tigers. Another 30 per cent were, reportedly, last seen in government-controlled areas.
The steady stream of families desperate to find their missing children has dwindled to a trickle, but the fastidious note-taking and building up of a missing children database continues unabated.
Family Tracing Unit officers are constantly amazed that despite many families in parts of Sri Lanka’s north having lost all worldly possessions, many miraculously have managed to retain personal documents and family photos. This has helped enormously as tracing unit officers compile profiles of the missing.
“When we hear people’s stories about missing children they cry and we cry. Many people are emotionally drained. We listen. It’s important we listen. It’s allowing people to release their stress,” said Volunteer Probation Officer, Kirislite Emalda.
The tenacity of Jhoncy (20) in tracing her family is remarkable. She and her two younger sisters and two younger brothers were left parentless 10 years ago when their mother died and their father married again.
The three girls and two boys remained in contact although they were placed in separate children’s homes. Then, during intense fighting in early 2009 between Sri Lankan government forces and the Tamil Tigers, the children were forced to flee their homes. The girls’ escape led them to a camp for the internally displaced, Menik Farm.
Nearly 300,000 were displaced from their homes during the final two years of the conflict.
It was while in the camp that Jhoncy spotted a poster advertising the Family Tracing Unit hotline. She made contact. The team investigated her case and after cross-checking records, reunited the three sisters with younger brother Robin, now 12, who was living in a children’s home in north-west Sri Lanka.
Briefly, four of the five children lived together again with their father. Sadly, he was unable to maintain the family and the girls were again placed in a children’s home. Robin remains living with his father.
However, Jhonson, like thousands of other adults and children, remains unaccounted for. Jhoncy refuses to give up hope.