May 26, 2008 / 9:30 AM / 11 years ago

U.N. urges Myanmar not to alienate cyclone orphans

YANGON (Reuters) - The United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) is trying to convince army-ruled Myanmar not to place at least 2,000 youngsters orphaned by this month’s cyclone into state-run homes, a senior official said on Monday.

“We should try and place children within family environments as a priority, and not in institutions,” Anne-Claire Dufay, UNICEF’s child protection chief in the former Burma, told Reuters in an interview on Monday.

“We should try to keep them in their community and even in the interim, before we are able to trace families, we should be able to place children in temporary foster care families. That’s the message we are sending,” she said.

The junta said last week it would build orphanages in Labutta and Pyapon, two of the hardest-hit areas of the Irrawaddy delta, where the May 2 cyclone left 134,000 people dead or missing and another 2.4 million destitute.

In an attempt to reverse this policy, UNICEF is flying in its Asia head, Anupama Rao Singh, to speak in person to Welfare Minister Major-General Maung Maung Swe on Monday.

Despite government restrictions on aid workers in the delta, the United Nations says it has established that at least 2,000 children have lost both parents.

In Labutta, 282 children were separated from their families, and of those 50 now in the care of officials had no known family, UNICEF said.

Their story is repeated across the delta, where — as in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — children made up a disproportionate number of the dead because they were unable to cling to trees or buildings when the storm surge swept in.

Even before Cyclone Nargis, children in Myanmar faced a challenge to stay alive. Infant mortality rates of 76 per 1,000 live births are among the highest in Asia and the U.N. says one in three toddlers is malnourished.

One of the few positives is that decades of military rule and international isolation have at least protected youngsters from the child trafficking networks that operate elsewhere in southeast Asia.

“If there is one area in Myanmar where we can say the government has taken positive steps, it is child trafficking,” Dufay said.

Even though a trickle of aid is getting through, Dufay said Nargis would affect families for months to come as poverty forced children to leave home in search of work, causing a so-called “second separation”.

“You have family breakdowns, poverty, single-headed households, women with five children and no husband to go fishing. Child protection issues tend to surface over many months,” she said.

As with nearly all outside aid agencies, UNICEF has had problems with access to the delta, although said it had been fortunate enough to have some emergency supplies already stockpiled in the area.

Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Ed Davies and Alex Richardson

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