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Sri Lanka

UNICEF supports effort to trace missing children in post-conflict Sri Lanka

© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2011/Fletcher
Jhoncy (centre), 20, is flanked by her sisters Nirojini,14, and Jenitta, 11, outside the children’s home where they live in northern Sri Lanka. Their brother Jhonson, 17, is missing.

By Mervyn Fletcher

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, 20 July 2011 – Jhoncy sits in the shaded courtyard of a children’s home, alone in quiet thought. Understandably, she has a lot on her mind.

When we arrive, Jhoncy, 20, 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 Jhonson, who should be 17 years old. He has disappeared. Jhoncy’s quest to know what has happened to him has become the source of a deep, lingering pain for her.

Family-tracing skills

Since December 2009, UNICEF has supported the Family Tracing Unit based in Vavuniya, northern Sri Lanka. This joint venture with the government aims to help reunite families such as Jhoncy’s, who were separated during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s civil conflict.

Five officers in the unit have been trained in family-tracing skills. At the same time, UNICEF has sustained family-tracing work undertaken by the local government’s probation service. This service had already reunited more than 600 children with their families soon after the conflict here ended in May 2009.

© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2011/Fletcher
Volunteer Probation Officer Kirislite Emalda checks files on missing children at the Family Tracing Unit office in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka.

“In collaboration with the government, it is important that we address the needs of the most vulnerable, says UNICEF Sri Lanka Child Protection Specialist Saji Thomas. “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.”

Reunification in progress

The Family Tracing Unit currently has 676 missing children on its files. Of those, 29 have been reunited with their relatives. Another 13 children have been identified and are in the process of family reunification.

An additional 34 missing children’s names have found matches in the database, and efforts are in progress to verify their whereabouts.
Much work on tracing and reuniting children and their relatives remains to be done. Reports suggest that 64 per cent of those who have disappeared were recruited by the Tamil Tigers rebel group. About 30 per cent were reportedly last seen in government-controlled areas.

‘Emotionally drained’

The formerly steady stream of families desperate to find their missing children has dwindled to a trickle over time, but the tracing unit’s fastidious note-taking and compilation of its missing-children database continue unabated.

Even though families in parts of Sri Lanka’s north have lost all their worldly possessions, Family Tracing Unit officers are amazed that many have still managed to retain personal documents and family photos. This, in turn, has helped enormously as the unit compiles profiles of the missing.

© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2011/Fletcher
Robin, 12, lives at his father’s home in northern Sri Lanka while his older brother remains unaccounted for.

“When we hear people’s stories about missing children, they cry and we cry. Many people are emotionally drained,” says volunteer Probation Officer Kirislite Emalda. “It’s important we listen. It’s allowing people to release their stress.”

A sister’s tenacity

For Jhoncy, the young woman whose brother Jhonson is unaccounted for, that stress is accompanied by incredible tenacity.
She and her two younger sisters and two younger brothers were first separated 10 years ago, when their mother died and their father remarried. The girls and boys were placed in separate children’s homes but remained in contact.

Then, during intense fighting in early 2009 between Sri Lankan Government forces and the Tamil Tigers, the children were forced to flee. The girls’ escape led them to Menik Farm, a camp for displaced people.

In the camp, Jhoncy spotted a poster advertising the Family Tracing Unit hotline. She made contact, and the team investigated her case. After cross-checking records, they reunited Jhoncy and her two sisters with their 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 with his father. And to this day, Jhoncy refuses to give up hope of finding Jhonson.



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