Children in Emergencies: Applying What We Already Know to the Crisis in Haiti
Posted on January 21, 2010 at 12:01 pm
As concern grows for the children in Haiti, it’s important to reflect on what was learned from previous disasters to make the best decisions possible in this disaster.
In early 2005, following the Tsunami, I collaborated with a cross-section of people at the organization where I work to put together a summary of lessons learned and some short guidelines for working with children and communities in emergencies.
Some of the most important things that stayed with me from the weeks we spent talking with each other, with peer organizations, and with our colleagues who were dealing with the 2004 Tsunami are related to the importance of child participation and protection during emergencies. These recommendations can be applied now to the crisis in Haiti.
Don’t assume children or their families can’t do anything for themselves
Local coping mechanisms are often overlooked and underestimated by central governments or aid organizations, creating unnecessary dependency. Participating and taking control of their situation can actually help people return to normal sooner. I clearly remember an example of an IDP camp where all the services (food, water) were at first centrally coordinated by the municipal government. A manager from our organization was able to convince the government to engage camp ‘residents’ and organize children and youth into smaller groups who handled particular responsibilities. Suddenly the trash in the camp was picked up and time spent in the food line went from 2 hours to 20 minutes, tempers lowered and people relaxed a bit and got on with things.
The Children and Participation: Research, Monitoring and Evaluation with Children and Young People by Save the Children is a general guide that can help staff think through and orient participation of children and young people in emergencies. Child-Oriented Participatory Risk Assessment and Planning (COPRAP): A Toolkit developed by the Center for Disaster Preparedness (CDP) in the Philippines is another excellent resource. Both were adapted and used by Plan during the conflict in Timor Leste, for example.
Child protection is critical during an emergency and after
During a disaster the typical social patterns and groupings that protect children may be challenged or broken. Children can be further harmed, abused and exploited by those who take advantage of the chaos. Unaccompanied children can be preyed on if mechanisms are not established quickly. Personal information about children is often shared or published widely in the interest of helping find parents or relatives or find missing persons, yet it can also help unscrupulous people to identify unaccompanied children and prey on them, especially now when published on the internet. Birth registration and restoration of lost identity and other civil registration documents are critical to
halt trafficking, as is close coordination among organizations, governments, communities and local agencies/staff.
Community members and the affected population can play a strong role in protecting their children, as can older children themselves. The Interagency Guiding Principles on Unaccompanied and Separated Children, put together by the International Committee of the Red Cross, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children UK, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and World Vision, gives an excellent overview of protection. Further resources are available at Better Care Network’s website which has materials on separated children in emergencies, how to prevent separation through good relief and response efforts, registration, documentation and tracing, emergency care arrangements, verification and family reunification.
Unaccompanied children should not be given up for foreign adoption during the emergency phase
Experience in many past emergencies and conflicts has shown that this is just not the way to go. In the emergency phase there is no way to ascertain which children are orphans with no other family at all, versus children who might be orphaned but have family somewhere who could take them in. Taking children out of the country to feed them without a long-term, sustainable plan for them can end up being more complex than finding a way to feed and care for them in country. Supporting removal of children from their own country during a time of upheaval can also engender a negative reaction among the affected population, who may come to see every external face that comes into the community or camp as someone coming to steal their children. Interim and emergency care should be consistent with the long-term goal of family reunification. More background on this can be found at the International Foster Care Association’s website.
Participation and protection go hand in hand
The greater the amount of knowledge and ownership that children, youth and their families and communities have, the safer they will be and the sooner they will recover. When the affected people have more input in the relief, recovery and reconstruction, efforts are more successful. This means linking and coordinating with existing community organizations and structures, local government mechanisms, local non-governmental organizations. Though it may appear that everything is wiped out in a major disaster, leaders will emerge and regroup. Plan’s publication “After the Cameras have Gone: Children in Disasters” offers some examples and insights on protection and participation in disaster situations.
The media will undoubtedly look for the ‘best’ story in the interest of raising the most funds possible for the emergency. In media-speak, unfortunately, that often means the hardest hitting story, the most emotional story, and some journalists/media folks will go extremely far to get it. However, journalists and agencies bringing journalists to affected communities should obviously not further harm children or take advantage of affected persons in their drive to get the best story. Journalists should not ask children to relive traumatic experiences or to make them tell stories that upset them just to get a shot of a child crying. The golden rule applies – how would you like it if that were you or your child?
Children or other community members may be too polite or unsure of whether they can say ‘no’ to a journalist, especially if that journalist is foreign or comes with an aid agency or entity that is linked with emergency aid. Those working regularly with children and their families should ensure them that they can refuse to talk, they can halt an interview, or not have their picture taken. Local staff managing media visits should feel empowered to intervene on behalf of children in these cases. UNICEF’s “Child Rights and the Media” Guidelines for Journalists and Media Professionals, published by the International Federation of Journalists, gives a background and guide for ethical reporting on children in general. These guidelines include things like striving for sensitivity when reporting on issues involving children and avoiding use of stereotypes and sensational presentation to promote journalistic material involving children, and they should apply in emergency situations as well.
Statement by UNICEF Director on the Situation of Children in Haiti – Released January 22
Resources referenced in this post:
Plan’s publication “After the Cameras have Gone: Children in Disasters”
United Nations Guidelines for the alternative care of children
Children are best left with their families – The Age.com.au – discusses how children fair better left with their families than if they are removed to a safer location