Government and press against orphan trafficking
Greatest threat to recovery is international aid that does not focus on human needs, says Jesuit missioner.

Colombo (AsiaNews) –Sri Lanka is on high alert against possible trafficking in tsunami orphans but it must also protect itself against the dangers posed by international aid that does not focus on human needs, this according to Fr Michele Catalano*, a Jesuit missioner who has been working in Colombo since 1976.

Father Catalano spoke to AsiaNews by phone and said that "rumours about the sale of orphaned or displaced children have started to spread across the country". The government and the press reacted "immediately by warning the public against the danger".

Father Catalano is aware that "there always be those who will try to profit from chaos" like the one that is now affecting Sri Lanka's coastline, but he is also reassured that "knowing about the risk means that you are half-way to prevent it".

"People along the coast," said the Jesuit, "are more sensitive and I saw them pay great attention to the problem of orphans". What is more, "from an administrative point of view, it is easier to keep an eye on the hardest-hit areas whilst human trafficking in minors is less likely in the interior of the country".

For many though, the fear remains that orphans or displaced children might be sold, sexually exploited or end up as domestic workers. To counter the danger, the Sri Lankan government is urging its citizens to inform the National Child Protection Authority of any individual or family illegally harbouring a tsunami orphan.

What counts now, Father Catalano believes, is that foreign aid organisations "focus on people, on the locals' real needs. It is they who are the victims of the natural disaster".

"Too often," he points out, "international organisations forget the human aspect which should be at the centre of things."

"For years," he insists, "international organisations and local governments have emphasised per capita income growth, infrastructural development, tourism. They have looked at estimates and forgotten some parts of the country". However, reality for many segments of the population is different, according to the Jesuit missioner. "In the last few years, abject poverty has risen from 24 per cent of the population to 32 per cent in six districts."

"The fact is that only averages are calculated so that when it comes time to implement what was decided in some office, the poor are forgotten," Father Catalano said. "These people," he adds, "should have been helped before the tsunami hit with more resistant houses built far from the shore".

"If we get the necessary money, we'll build stronger houses in safer areas above sea level," Father Catalano says. However, even though "the local Catholic Church has long standing programmes for the malnourished, drug addicts, the unemployed, the elderly, when we want to implement them no one wants to help us".

Despite the tragedy, people in the displacement camps want to go back living. Father Catalano and Colombo's Jesuits are involved in a camp in Moratuwa (an area 10 km south of the capital that is 50 per cent Catholic). From his experience there he has stories to tell, stories of European volunteers skipping rope with local kids and moms, but also stories of despairing fathers who feel the heavier burden of family responsibilities on their shoulders.

By and large, "people seem to want to overcome the trauma. They say to themselves: 'We are people—men, women and kids—and want to go on living".

The death toll in Sri Lanka from the tsunami of December 26 stands at 35,000. (MA)

* Fr Michele Catalan is a Jesuit missioner working in Sri Lanka since 1976. He was recently awarded Italy's Silver Star for Meritorious Service. He directs an interethnic and inter-faith association called Shanti (peace) that works on behalf of the poor and promotes peace in the country.