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Haiti earthquake: no effort must be spared in reuniting children with their families

02-02-2010 Interview

The earthquake in Haiti has been particularly devastating for children who lost their parents. ICRC child protection adviser Kristin Barstad explains what the organization is doing alongside other agencies to find the best solution to the plight of unaccompanied children.

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© Norwegian Red Cross/Olav A. Saltbones 
 
A lone child at a hospital in Port-au-Prince. 
     

 
© Reuters/Tomas Bravo  
 
Port-au-Prince. Mealtime for children at an orphanage. 
     

 
  © ICRC/M. Kokic    
 
  Port-au-Prince. An ICRC employee interviews a woman to help reunite her with her child.    
     

  
   
  ©ICRC    
 
  Kristin Barstad, ICRC's child protection adviser.    
     What is being done to help the hundreds of children who have lost their parents in the wake of the disastrous earthquake?  

In the aftermath of the earthquake, living conditions have become extremely harsh for children who lost their parents.

The ICRC and the Haitian Red Cross are putting a lot of emphasis on locating children who are on their own or with caretakers and offering them tracing services to help find their relatives. Because unaccompanied children from Haiti have entered the Dominican Republic and the United States of America, we are also working with the Red Cross societies of these two countries.

As we seek to locate the children’s relatives, we are also working in collaboration with other humanitarian agencies on the ground to find care arrangements and ensure that the children have all they need.

 Many good-intentioned people around the globe are offering to adopt orphans. What does the ICRC recommend in such cases?  

    

Children separated from their parents in an emergency situation cannot be assumed to be orphans and are not available for adoption. However well intentioned, it is difficult to determine the status of children who are separated from their families and unaccompanied following a disaster. As long as the fate of a child's parents and/or other close relatives cannot be verified, the child must be considered as still having close living relatives.

Every effort will be made to reunite children with their families. Only if that proves impossible, and after proper screening has been carried out, should permanent solutions, such as adoption, be considered by the relevant authorities.

Haiti has a considerable number of orphanages, many of whose charges are not necessarily orphans. It is a mistake to assume that they are all available for adoption. Some of the children had actually been placed in orphanages by their primary caregivers as a temporary measure until they could find a solution to their difficult economic situation. Imagine the anguish of the family and the children, if they inexplicably lost trace of each other!

Of course, for children who had completed the screening process for international adoption prior to the earthquake, there are obvious benefits in speeding up arrangements for travel to their new homes. However, all adoption processes must follow clear legal procedures. We welcome the crucial measure taken by the Haitian prime minister on 20 January to tighten up adoption procedures by requiring his own signature of approval on all adoption files.

 Just days after the disaster, unaccompanied children were already being evacuated, notably to the Dominican Republic and the United States. What is your comment?  

Indeed, given the large number of casualties, various actors have evacuated some injured children to the two countries pending the setup of adequately equipped health facilities in Haiti.

While it is always recommended to treat injured children as close to their home as possible, this was not feasible for all of them in the very first days following the earthquake. Health facilities had not been put in place yet. However, it must be stressed that in situations where a child is evacuated, there are clear procedures to follow: the child should be accompanied by a relative or someone who knows them, if possible; the details of the child must be registered and their family must know where the child is taken to and by whom. Unfortunately some children were evacuated in haste without all their details being recorded.

As part of the worldwide Red Cross and Red Crescent network to restore family links, the ICRC and the American and Dominican Red Cross societies are offering tracing services to children who have been evacuated abroad, and indeed to anybody who has been evacuated from Haiti.

 What do the joint ICRC/Haitian Red Cross tracing teams in Haiti do when they come across an unaccompanied child?  

    

Whenever our tracing teams in Haiti or the Dominican Republic come across an unaccompanied child, the first thing they do is to register as much information as possible about the child, for instance where his or her family members might be, and contact details. The teams work with people who are around the child to get additional information if necessary.

The teams refer the child to UNICEF or agencies tasked with organizing interim care, if need be, and then begin searching for the child's relatives. We do this in various ways, including what we call " active tracing " . This involves visiting the place where the child’s parents are likely to be, offering a chance to make phone calls and registering information on our family links website, among other things. The ICRC uses radio spots and street broadcasts regularly to publicize its tracing service.

 How is the ICRC coordinating with other humanitarian organizations to ensure that children receive appropriate assistance during the present emergency in Haiti?  

Given the magnitude of the emergency and the large number of humanitarian agencies coming in to help, efforts were launched quickly on the ground to coordinate the humanitarian response. The UN has set up the " cluster lead " system, with UNICEF leading what is called the child-protection group of aid agencies.

It is crucial for all organizations concerned and the authorities to cooperate and complement each others’ efforts in caring for and protecting all those affected by the earthquake. Specific lead rol es have been established in key areas. The ICRC and the American, Dominican, Haitian and other national Red Cross societies have taken up a large proportion of tracing activities, with other agencies contributing to the effort.

Other organizations are in charge of temporary childcare, psycho-social care, setting up emergency education, and so on. The task of each agency depends on their mandate, expertise and capacity to deal with the given situation. Any organization wishing to work on behalf of children separated from their families must liaise with the other partners involved. The ICRC adheres to this principle.