As usual, I’ve been dabbling in 1,001 things under the sun. Today I thought I’d repost one of them. It was my entry to The Guardian’s International Development journalism contest. I didn’t make it to the finals, but congratulations to all who did. Next year I’ll make sure not to be finishing my entry at 11pm on deadline night!
Last year my entry on inclusive development made it onto the professionals’ longlist, and I had really hoped to do better this year for the chance to report on scene somewhere. Maybe next time!
Anyway, here it is, a somewhat scraggly piece written for the category of post-emergency shelter:
In the aftermath of disaster, the benefit of shelter depends as much on the people around you as it does on the provision of food, sanitation and other necessities.
Especially when you are a child.
Five years ago, a little girl called Cortez enjoyed an embrace she may never forget. Hurricane Katrina had separated Cortez from her family. For six months, the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) worked to reunite Cortez and her mother, Lisa Stewart. In the middle of March 2006, they succeeded.
Cortez was the final child reunited out of 5,192 who were reported as missing or displaced after Katrina.
In the end, it was discovered that Cortez had been sheltered by her godmother, who had been evacuated toAtlanta, while Lisa and the rest of Cortez’s family were evacuated toHouston. Neither knew how to reach the other, according to the NCMEC’s website.
Cameras, scanners, school photos, cellular technology and portable radios were among the items that aided post-Katrina searches. The Justice Department, FBI and other organisations also assisted.
In developing countries, however, the challenges of post-disaster reunification can be even more complex. But children who become displaced during disasters desperately need to be united with family members or people from local and similar communities. International children’s charity UNICEF recommends this option over orphanages or international adoptions.
Even so, three in five Britons favour building orphanages for children whose parents go missing or die during a humanitarian emergency, according to a 2010 YouGov survey commissioned by Save the Children.
If their own children were left orphaned, only 1 per cent of respondents said they would be comfortable with their children being in an orphanage.
The report’s author, Joanne Doyle, said: “People may think that a child living in a brightly painted new orphanage may be more appealing than the image of one being cared for by relatives or a foster family in the humble surroundings of their home.
“But the best way to protect children is often to keep them with people they know and trust, even if reuniting them with their family may take weeks or months.
“It’s usually much more cost-effective to support children within families than build orphanages, so we can help more children this way.”
Four in five children have at least one parent who is still living, the report revealed, adding that “in the worst cases, orphanages may even block family reunification efforts” to protect numbers-based funding. And for every three months that children remain institutionalised, their development may fall behind by a month.
Save the Children’s report advises that “people who support orphanages or international adoption in the belief that they are doing the best for children suffering after a major emergency could in fact be putting those children in even more danger.”
Only as a “last resort” should children be placed into orphanages or sought for international adoptions, UNICEF stresses.
Institutions such as orphanages can be “disastrous solutions for child survivors and the last place that promotes their wellbeing,” said Alexander Krueger, UNICEF’s child protection officer in the East Asia and Pacific region.
Mr Krueger spoke about child safety and shelter during an update on the disaster response to theMyanmar cyclone in May 2008, which left at least 2,000 children displaced or orphaned.
“First of all,” he said, “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.”
He continued: “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.”
Human networks can stretch when a disaster-struck community becomes dispersed overnight. Sometimes they shatter.
“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’,” Mr Krueger said.
“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.”
Children need the chance to return to a normal routine as soon as possible. Doing so benefits their recovery and that of the community. Once disaster survivors receive material support, they may cope better if they can remain in their culture and near their home.
Mr Krueger said: “When I was inRwanda after the horrible genocide there, we found that in that worst-case scenario, impoverished families still accepted other children – often without any financial support.”
He added: “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.”