Overview of ongoing government efforts to trace and reunify missing children in Northern Sri Lanka

UNICEF, 17 August 2012

Background: One of the key child protection issues following the displacement in 2009 was that of separated children. In the complex emergency situation of the last phase of the Sri Lankan conflict, a large number of children among internally displaced people were (IDP) lost or were separated from their families. In addition, families displaced from the conflict have been filing tracing requests and reporting missing children to a number of competent authorities at the district as well as at the national level.

Family Tracing Overview: In December 2009, in reply to the many tracing request received, the Vavuniya Government Agent, and the Probation and Child Care Commissioner (Northern Province) jointly established a Family Tracing and Reunification (FTR) Unit for unaccompanied and separated children, with UNICEF support. The FTR unit includes a help line and data collection staff, who underwent an orientation training on how to handle calls and deal with visiting parents/relatives and on data information/collection and management. Informative printed posters were also distributed to partners and agencies also in other districts.

In September 2010, a consultant was hired to actively pursue sources of data on separated children and facilitate access to such data. The consultant and a small team from the FTR Unit has visited nine districts and briefed relevant officers such as Government Agent, DS and GS secretaries, Probation Commissioners and probation officers, district NCPA staff, hospital authorities and police officers. In October 2010, Provincial Probation Commissioners met and agreed on a plan to start some tracing activities with hospitals, children homes and police posts in all the nine provinces across the island and as a result 34 lists with over 115,000 children’s details have been received. The verification process against the FTR database is in progress.

Caseload Overview: In Vavuniya, as of 30th June 2012, 2,431 tracing applications have been recorded by the unit out of which 748  (Boys 387 and Girls 361) are related to children and 1,683 (Men 1168 and Women 515)  to adults.  To date 148 children were matched[1] and referred to Probation for tracing, verification, and reunification.

The age analysis for children shows that the great majority are between 16 and 18 years.  In addition, 57% tracing requests were reported by parents as having been recruited by LTTE

Challenges: Active search for data has been made in children homes and hospitals on children who are alive, while very limited information has been sought from surrendees and detention centres, and on children who died in hospitals.

Nearly 69% of the tracing requests received by the unit are related to adults. The Department of Probation is not in a position to follow up on this matter. The requests have been forwarded to the GA, Vavuniya and a follow up from the District Administration is expected.

The process of obtaining death certificates remains a challenge for the population displaced by the conflict, given the fact that adequate legislation for the cases of persons killed in the conflict has not yet been developed. A bill was passed by the Parliament towards the end of 2010, covering only issues related to missing persons. In order to be effective the procedures related to the issuance of death certificates under this Act needs to be clearly communicated to those concerned. The provision of “certificates of prolonged absence” for persons who are missing for lengthy periods of time but where there is insufficient evidence to support a conclusion of death should be considered as an option for families.

Way Forward: Under a leading Ministry, a national, government-led, multidisciplinary Task Force should be established to develop and implement a comprehensive child tracing programme. This Task Force should have a strong mandate to access/ verify available data and sources of information. Those could be some of the key government actors to be involved:  the Secretary of the Ministry of Justice, Commissioner General of Rehabilitation, Attorney General Department, Judicial Medical Officers, Department of Police, Health authorities, the National and Northern Province Commissioners of Probation and Child Care Services.

[1] – Matching indicates the name of the child was found in available databases or registers from children’s homes, police stations,  hospitals etc. However this does not indicate that children have been found.

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