In the aftermath of the Philippines floods, unaccompanied children are the most vulnerable

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By Anna Villanueva

ILIGAN CITY, Philippines, 23 January 2012 – From his ready smile and the way his face lights up when greeted, one wouldn’t guess that 10-year-old Roy* is facing the greatest test of his life.

He is.

But with help from relief workers and volunteers, Roy is hoping to finally find his way home.

Separated from his family

In the early hours of 17 December 2011, floodwaters from Tropical Storm Washi swept through a number of ‘barangays’, or villages, in Iligan City, including Roy’s village of Barinaut.

He was jolted awake at midnight as the waters rushed through his home. Unable to see anything in the darkness, he called out to his three siblings, but received no response.

Instinctively, he grabbed at the objects floating past. “I had to hold on to something so that I will not be carried away by the waters,” he said.

Still, Roy ended up floating through the village in a mighty river of floodwater, clutching a piece of wood. He was pulled to safety by rescuers on the morning of 18 December.

“I don’t know if I fell asleep or lost consciousness that night. All I remember is waking up, being saved at sea. I was in a barge with other survivors,” Roy said.

When he arrived at Santa Filomena evacuation centre, at the Iligan City East High School, Roy had a high fever. Volunteers at the centre searched for relatives, neighbours or acquaintances able to identify him, but the other survivors did not recognize him.

“We just moved to Barinaut from Barangay Digkilaan three months prior to the disaster,” Roy said. “We still don’t know most of our neighbours, and still don’t have a lot of friends in the village.”

Since his rescue, Roy has been in the care of evacuation centre workers.

Protecting unaccompanied children

The government estimates over 1.1 million people were affected by the storm, which is locally known as Sendong. Today, 30,000 people are still in evacuation centres, while another 400,000 are living in makeshift shelters or with relatives.

Some 51 separated and unaccompanied children have been identified in Iligan City and Cagayan de Oro City, the major cities affected by the tropical storm. These children are not only coping with the distress of the flash floods, mass panic and ensuing chaos, but are also struggling from the loss – temporary or permanent – of their families. And without the support of family members, they are increasingly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including child trafficking, child labour or sexual exploitation.

“UNICEF works closely with its partners, social workers, and the Department of Social Welfare and Development to trace parents, siblings or extended family in order to reunite children with them,” said Sarah Norton-Staal, UNICEF Child Protection Chief in Manila. “UNICEF puts a high priority on reuniting children with their relatives so as to protect and preserve family unity, and give children a sense of normalcy after enduring a distressing experience.”

UNICEF also works with partners to address children’s other immediate needs, including medical attention. Family members may also require help in supporting reunited children. They can receive counselling and other assistance to ensure that all children are met with a loving and caring family environment once they return home.

Children’s recovery is also greatly aided by the restoration of a sense of normality; this is especially essential for displaced children facing a variety of uncertainties after the disaster. UNICEF has provided recreation kits, which include toys and musical instruments, to children in evacuation centres so that they can play again, express themselves, and begin to resume a sense of normality.

Hope for happy ending

According to UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Jesus Far, recent reports indicate Roy’s father is alive and has been located. UNICEF, together with its partners, is in the process of verifying these reports to help Roy be reunited with his family.

*Name changed to protect the identity of the child