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Press release

Effort to identify unaccompanied children begins

UNICEF Says Reuniting Children With Extended Family is First Priority

NEW YORK, 31 December 2004 – UNICEF said today it is concerned that children throughout the tsunami-devastated region have been orphaned or separated from their families and are in critical need of basic care and support.

“It is hard to imagine the fear, confusion and desperation of children who have seen enormous waves wash away their worlds and cast dead bodies upon the shore,” UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said Friday. “Children have lost all semblance of the life they knew – from parents, siblings and friends to homes, schools and neighborhoods. They are in desperate need of care.”

UNICEF has estimated that children account for more than one-third of tsunami deaths, but reliable figures on the number of children who survived the floods but are now separated from their families are not available.  Given the high death toll, however – now over 100,000 – there is every liklihood that across the region there are thousands of separated children.

In Sri Lanka, the UNICEF office has begun to support government and local communities to assess the number and whereabouts of unaccompanied children.  Although figures are not yet available, UNICEF staff in Colombo reported as of late Thursday that there were more reports of parents in search of children than children who have been found to be alone. 

There are also those like Tamarashi, a 13-year-old girl from a coastal village in India, who watched from her family’s kitchen as her parents, who were sitting under a coconut palm trying to sell fish, were folded into the waves.  It would be three days after the waters receded before relief workers could coax Tamarashi to leave the beach. She survived the waves after getting caught on a coconut tree and is now too stunned to do little more than cry and ask why she wasn’t taken along with her parents. 

Throughout the affected region, UNICEF is starting to coordinate with NGOs and government authorities to develop systems to identify children and reunite them with parents or other relatives.  With large, extended families the norm in many of the affected communities, the first task is to place children back with grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins or close members of their communities – a process that Bellamy said was apparently already occurring.

“Children belong with families rather than in institutional care,” she said, adding that early reports suggest that children separated from their immediate relatives were being cared for by other adults in their communities.

Bellamy commended the good will and intentions of people around the world who have expressed interest in adopting children affected by the tsunami, but cautioned that hasty adoptions during emergencies are not in the best interests of children.

“We cannot assume that all the children who cannot find their parents have lost their entire families,” Bellamy said. “There are parents, aunts, uncles and cousins desperately looking for their children and young relatives.  Every effort must be made to assist families and children to reunite before adoptions can be considered.”

She added that for those who have been orphaned, adoption within the extended family or community is widely recognized as the first and best option.

UNICEF has is now delivering relief assistance to all the countries affected and is supporting governments throughout the region to assess and begin addressing the special needs of children.  In addition to delivering relief supplies like water purification materials and clothing, blankets and medicines, in the last 24 hours UNICEF has:

  • Begun working with government and religious organizations to establish 30 child/community activity centers in camps for displaced people in Indonesia’s worst-hit areas of Aceh and North Sumatra provinces.
  • Dispatched ten teams of specially-trained paediatricians and nurses in Thailand to provide psychological care and support to help children overcome by trauma. This compliments a network of trained child rights volunteers UNICEF has on the ground in two districts who are already identifying children in need of special assistance.
  • Begun major sanitation and clean-up drives in camps for displaced people in India and initiated a program to ensure that people in the camps know how to use supplies such as chlorine tablets for water and oral re-hydration salts.


Note to broadcasters: A video interview on orphaned and missing children with UNICEF Deputy Director of Emergency Operations Afshan Khan is available online and free at www.thenewsmarket.com/unicef

For interviews and other details from the ground, contact UNICEF press officers:

In Sri Lanka: Martin Dawes + 977 985 10 40961
In the Maldives: Binita Shah + 977 985 107 4260
In India: Michael Galway + 91 981 86 49088
In Indonesia: John Budd + 62 811 936 437
In Bangkok: Shantha Bloemen + 66 1 906 0813
In Geneva: Damien Personnaz + 41 22 909 5716
At NY Headquarters: Simon Ingram + 1 212 326 7426




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