06/10/2008, 00.00
MYANMAR
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Cyclone Nargis orphans victims of child labour

Many children who survived the disaster face a double challenge, finding their family whilst staying clear of child labour exploiters and human traffickers. The situation is “desperate”, says a human rights activist; too many families “sacrifice” their children.

Yangon (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Jo Jo’s story is like that of thousands of other children who survived cyclone Nargis, orphaned because their parents perished or are missing.

Sheltered by church members in Yangon, he faces more challenges: finding his parents even though, like most Burmese, he has no surname; and surviving in a society where children are widely considered a source of cheap labour and an important commodity for human traffickers. Indeed, prices for everything might be up, the price of life is not; cheapest of all, that of children.

In a working-class area in central Yangon, children pump gas, fix generators, sell fruit, serve tea, cook food as well as clean monasteries and temples.

Across the country, kids are involved in smuggling or fight in ethnic wars. Most have at best four years of schooling. Almost every mom-and-pop business employs children for less than a dollar a day.

Some may even be happy to be working with parents or relatives, but many are sold by them.

“Trafficking has always been big in this region. That needs to be addressed very quickly,” said Marvin Parvez, a development activist who has been working with several aid agencies in Burma.

“[Irrawaddy] Delta children were the poorest of the poor to begin with. They had food shortages in the delta area before the cyclone. The cyclone put them back at least one century,” he explained. “Families are desperate now, so sometimes they sacrifice their daughters or sons. Children are very vulnerable at this time.”

Despite everything the best way to protect children after most disasters is to reconnect them with their families or villages. The real problem is finding out to whom children belong in a society that doesn't use surnames.

Instead of giving family names, Burmese parents typically give their children a combination of names, which give no indication of who the father or mother is. Many Burmese also go by nicknames.

Many children, especially younger ones who lost everything, including identity cards, may be unable to recall the name of their village or find it on a map.

The cyclone, which left 134,000 dead or missing and another 2.4 million displaced, erased entire villages, wiping out schools and homes, even changing topographical features.

At present it is still hard to estimate how many homeless children there are.

According to Save the Children, 40 per cent of the people living in the delta before the cyclone were under 18.

UNICEF put the number of children attending about 4,000 schools that were damaged or destroyed at over a million

For the UN agency at least 2,000 are orphans or are missing parents, but many Burmese say the number is much higher.

Local sources claim that just in Labutta, a town in the Irrawaddy Delta, there are 5,000 orphans.

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