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Pakistani Quake Orphans Endure an Unstable World

The safety net is thin for children who lost families in the disaster. Authorities try to shield them from traffickers and other menaces.

November 23, 2005|Ashraf Khalil and John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writers

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — She is a girl without identity, whisked here by helicopter from the earthquake zone, one of the devastating temblor's anonymous -- and most vulnerable -- victims.

The teenager, her hair cut short for head surgery, cries uncontrollably and cannot remember her own name or that of her village. Hospital workers call her Aisha.

"She's alone in the world. She doesn't recognize anybody," said Dr. Robina Quiesha of the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences. "I really don't know what will become of her."

A magnitude 7.6 earthquake rocked this region Oct. 8. The girl probably is one of thousands of orphans whose families died in the catastrophe or have disappeared.

In Pakistan's close-knit family structure, children who lose their parents would typically be cared for by uncles, aunts or other relatives. But the wide damage inflicted by the earthquake, which devastated entire mountain villages, made it probable that many youngsters have been left with no family at all.

Despite surviving one disaster, such children must be protected from another ominous fate: falling into the hands of ruthless human traffickers. The government recently has reported the selling of children in hard-hit cities such as Balakot and Muzaffarabad in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.

Alarmed by the looming threat, hospitals here have placed armed guards outside children's wards. The government also banned all adoptions after being besieged by people offering to take in homeless children. Administrators at hospitals, refugee camps and emergency shelters will not release any child until kinship has been verified, officials insist.

"Everyone's overwhelmed with this one. It's just unexpectedly bad," said Serap Maktav, the regional child protection advisor for UNICEF.

The earthquake has brought a special focus to the problem, which is complicated by Islamic strictures. The practice of selling vulnerable children into slavery is part of Pakistan's history.

The U.S. State Department has labeled Pakistan "a source, transit, and destination country for trafficked persons." International welfare agencies estimate that nearly 100,000 people are trafficked in Pakistan each year. Children are used as laborers, in the sex industry and even exported to the Middle East to become unwilling camel jockeys.

New "anti-trafficking" teams have been instructed to scour refugee camps and shelters to create a database of orphans and unaccompanied women, the government said.

Interpol, the international police agency, has also offered to develop an ID system for orphans. The agency has established laboratories at two Islamabad hospitals where DNA can be tested to confirm parentage. "The first priority of the government is to protect the children from exploitation," said Mohammed Hassan Mangi, director of the government's child welfare and development commission.

Western-style adoption doesn't exist in Pakistan and many other Muslim countries. It is regarded as contrary to Islamic law. Benefactors can sponsor an orphan under a system known as kafala, but the child cannot take his or her sponsor's last name and has no right to inheritance.

This version of a caste system hinders an orphan's ability to find work, marry and generally mesh with society.

But the future will be better for the earthquake orphans, said Dr. M. Zaheer Abbasi, head of pediatric surgery at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences. They have attracted the interest of officials at the highest levels of the Pakistani government, including, he said, "the wives of several ministers."

Abbasi displays a directive from the powerful National Security Council defining standards for the care and protection of the children, but it's still unclear where they will be housed for the long term.

"They will not just be dumped in an orphanage," Abbasi said. "The government is very moved."

International aid groups strongly support the government adoption ban. Particularly in the first months after the quake, they say, it is crucial to register and protect the unaccompanied children and make sure they have no remaining extended family. Local orphanages are a last resort in any country, said Rachel Atkinson, spokeswoman for Save the Children in Pakistan.

"Our first preference is always to keep children in their extended family and in their community," she said. "They're much safer there than in an institution."

Rampant fear of abduction and exploitation stem partly from lingering sensitivities over the thousands of Pakistani boys illegally taken to Arab nations to serve as jockeys in the region's popular camel races.

Thousands of children, mostly Pakistani, have been kept in brutal conditions, treated as slaves and often underfed to keep their weight down. The smugglers are generally people posing as close relatives.

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