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Press Briefing

Press Briefing on tsunami relief effort by unicef executive director

Amid the tumult of the massive clean-up efforts under way in tsunami-hit areas throughout South Asia, some children are heading back to school, taking what the head of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) today said was a crucial step in putting last month's nightmare behind them.

"This disaster is of such a huge scale and has had such an enormous impact on children's lives that there is no better way of helping [them] regain some normalcy than to return to school", said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy at a press briefing in New York.

Just back from Sri Lanka and Indonesia with UNICEF's first assessment of the education sector in the wake of the unprecedented disaster, Ms. Bellamy said that across the region, thousands of schools had been severely damaged or completely destroyed, and thousands of teachers had been killed or injured. [The estimated numbers for each affected country are available on the agency's Web site:]

According to a UNICEF press release, in hardest-hit Indonesia, preliminary government estimates of the number of severely damaged or destroyed schools ranged from 765 to 1151. In Sri Lanka, 51 schools were completely destroyed and an additional 100 were partially damaged. In the Maldives, 44 schools were destroyed or damaged -- a huge percentage of the total. The tsunami's impact on education was more minimal in Thailand, where fewer than 30 schools were damaged and very few destroyed.

Schools and learning were vital to the children's immediate well-being, as well as keys to long-term recovery and development, Ms. Bellamy said, adding: "For one thing, getting children back into school kept them safe, and focused on constructive activities". It also gave some hope to the parents. Providing children with a sense of normalcy in these types of situations made a huge difference in their emotional healing and in their sense of hope for the future.

At the same time, schools provided a place where other services could be offered -- from immunizations to trauma counselling, and from hygiene education to clothes distribution, she said. While the region struggled to recover from the tsunami, children could get their futures back on track by being in school. That would ensure that entire generations did not miss out on the benefits of education.

Ms. Bellamy said that UNICEF had been very pleased that the governments in the region had prioritized the reopening of schools. The agency was supporting that effort in a variety of ways, including by providing supplies, training and technical guidance.

Apart from helping to get the schools up and running and creating safe learning environments, UNICEF was also working with governments and other agencies in three other priority areas: child survival, family reunification and child protection, Ms. Bellamy said. Although UNICEF had offices located in all the affected countries, the agency's largest effort to ensure the well-being of children right now was focused on the AcehProvince, where bodies were still being recovered, and the dead were still being counted.

While the operation grew day by day, the damage was spread over vast areas of the province, she said, calling the joint agency efforts to build a regular supply line of needed goods and services "more than a logistical challenge -- there are moments when it's a logistical nightmare". Overall, the massive relief effort was going well, and even though there was an enormous amount of work to be done, some areas -- apart from Indonesia -- were even starting to show signs of recovery. Still, life was "far from good" for the 1.2 million people who had been displaced.

Aiming to keep the surviving children alive and in good health, United Nations agencies, particularly the World Health Organization (WHO), were supporting ongoing measles campaigns, the distribution of oral re-hydration salt, basic medicines and safe water. In most places large outbreaks of disease had been prevented, she said, adding, however, that just today, some 20 cases of measles had been reported in the AcehProvince.

The UNICEF was stepping up its support to the ongoing measles vaccination campaign in Aceh, which sought to immunize about 575,000 children up to the age of 15 across the province. She stressed that the main logistical hurdle hampering that push had been that the mechanism that needed to be in place to launch an immunization process had been totally destroyed.

In terms of protecting children from exploitation, vigilance was obviously the key, she said, adding that governments and communities across the region had responded very well to the potential threat of exploitation, and steps had been taken that, so far, seemed to be working. "So far, we are pleased that the reports of child trafficking and other abuses seem limited", she said.

Responding to questions about the need for adoption and foster care for the huge number of orphans reportedly left in the wake of the disaster, Ms. Bellamy stressed that UNICEF and other childcare agencies on the ground believed that, at this point, it was "absolutely premature" to be discussing the issue of orphans. "The issue is really finding out the status of all the children", she said, adding that there was a significant effort under way in all the countries to try and register and identify the children to determine whether an unaccompanied child might have lost one or more parents, and whether there might be extended family members who might take them in.

She stressed that all the affected countries had strong traditions of extended family support. "So this rush to judgement to declare all the children orphans, and some of the figures that have been thrown around, are really quite misleading." She felt that ultimately there might be a very small number of children who ended up with no parents and no other family to go to. "Some action would need to be taken in those cases, but right now, let's focus on reuniting children with their families."

Indonesia provided a prime example of how involved governments were in that effort, she added, noting that Indonesian authorities had put a temporary moratorium on the adoption of children from Aceh province at this time. Further, police forces had increased surveillance at airports and seaports to monitor the situation.

To queries that Tamil separatist forces in Sri Lanka were recruiting tsunami-affected children in displaced persons camps, Ms. Bellamy confirmed that three young girls had been recruited, and that two -- aged 11 and 12 -- had been released to their families in Ampara. Agencies, including UNICEF, were still following up on the third confirmed case, a 15-year-old from Batticaloa. She said that the camps were not necessarily "formal" or permanent but were often spontaneous settlements that had sprung up in buildings that had been left standing. She stressed that UNICEF was keeping a close eye on the matter.

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