Orphaned by the tsunami, 1000 km from the sea
By Robert Few
Nakon Panom, June 2005 – Nong, a quiet 15-year old schoolgirl, still weeps when she talks about her mother, who disappeared when the tsunami struck six months ago. Sitting alone on one side of her school playground, Nong explains her mother’s absence by saying she has gone away to marry a new man. Denial is the only way she can deal with the grief.
In fact, Nong is an orphan. She faces the same bleak future that confronts more than 1,200 children in Thailand who lost their parents to the tsunami. But Nong’s case has one major difference: She lives 1,000 km from the sea, in the impoverished province of Nakon Panom.
On 26 December the waves reached up to three km inland, but their effect was felt across the whole of the country. In the north and north-east, hundreds of children like Nong were orphaned when their parents, migrant workers in the fishing and tourism industries of Phuket, Pee Pee and neighbouring islands, were caught up in the tsunami’s fury. Of the thousands who were working in the south, many never returned home.
Outside the focus of relief efforts
The Thai Ministry of Social Development and Human Security estimates that the tsunami orphaned up to 300 children outside the southern provinces. Forty-four children who have lost one or both parents live in Nakon Panom alone, where Nong still waits for her mother to come home. Many more children are from families whose income relied on the now devastated southern tourism industry.
These children have largely been ignored, because their homes are far from tourist areas and from the focus of relief efforts. In addition, it is often impossible for poor families in the north-east to find the money to travel south, identify bodies and obtain death certificates. Without these certificates, they are unable to claim government assistance.
“In the southern provinces, the government has changed the law, so that a person can be declared legally dead when they have been missing for three months,” explains Ministry Official Khun Apawadee. “But here [in the north], the process can take up to two years.”
Nong and her three siblings are being supported by their grandparents, who cannot afford the trip south to try to find and identify Nong’s mother. As a result, there may not be enough money for Nong to continue her schooling. She dreams of becoming a motorcycle mechanic.
An urgent need to protect
The north-east is Thailand’s poorest region, and many children here were vulnerable to exploitation even before the tsunami wrought economic devastation. Now the risk to them has increased.
“There is an urgent need to identify and monitor these children to see how they are being cared for and that they are receiving all the assistance they need,” said Brigette de Lay, UNICEF Emergency Child Protection Officer.
“We know from experience in other disaster areas that orphaned children and children in families whose livelihoods have been destroyed are at higher risk of being removed from school or being abused by their new caregivers. There is also a danger of orphan children being trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation if we do not ensure that protective measures are taken,” she added.
UNICEF is working across the north and north-east of Thailand to ensure that vulnerable children are protected. In partnership with local organizations it has established child protection committees that bring together the police, social workers, teachers and others to watch for signs of abuse and to take action to prevent it.
UNICEF is also arranging vocational training and employment for girls at risk of being lured into prostitution. The organization is offering them a place on the Youth Career Development Programme, which is being run in conjunction with more than 20 Bangkok hotels, a bank and a hospital. More than 100 girls were accepted to the program in 2004 and almost all of them had obtained jobs with good salaries by the time of graduation.
Without vigilance and support for children orphaned or made vulnerable by the tsunami – no matter what part of the country they live in – Nong will never become a motorcycle mechanic, and many other children will lose the chance to realize their dreams.