Destructive winds, heavy rainfall, flooding and landslides. A scenery witnessed by all Mauritians and inflicted upon many of our fellow citizens over the passage of ‘Berguitta’. Imagine us as adults being so nervous and scared when natural calamities befall. How about children? There is no doubt that such events would affect their tender beings in different ways. Children count on us to protect them physically and psychologically. Unfortunately sometimes families are unable to do so, mainly because of lack of resources. It is in such circumstances that governmental and civil society organisations must take over to ensure that the most vulnerable group of citizens in our society are well taken care of.
I believe ‘Berguitta’ has given us a WAKE-UP CALL concerning our duty to provide special protection to children, especially during severe cyclonic conditions. Of course, it is firstly the responsibility of the State to ensure that the lives of children are not put at risk. Around most countries of the world, it is the government who has the authority to act in any emergency situation. However, it must be highlighted that governments ALONE cannot ensure the absolute protection of children’s rights. Individual citizens and civil society organisations also have a crucial role to play.
Last week when difficult cyclonic conditions prevailed in Mauritius, many children would have been left without basic necessities and emotional support were it not for the solidarity of a critical mass of Mauritian citizens. Worse, these children could have grown up with the belief that they cannot rely upon good and caring adults in our country. In this context, I would like to applaud the initiative of Mrs Roubina Jadoo-Jaunbocus, Minister of Gender Equality, Child Development and Family Welfare, and other Ministers who spared no efforts to provide basic necessities to children and families in different refugee centres across the island. Mrs Jadoo-Jaunbocus was on the field to quickly assess the situation, visually note the infrastructural damage and act promptly despite the compromising weather conditions. Her interventions definitely made a difference in the lives of child refugees during the passage of ‘Berguitta’.
But next time, we as a nation need to reflect on how all stakeholders could get together to better plan our resources and responses to natural calamities and therefore be more prepared when they strike. How can we enhance our current disaster management systems to mitigate risks for future torrential rain and cyclonic events for children? ‘Berguitta’ showed us that our refugee centres were clearly not adapted and equipped to accommodate parents and their children. Over a period of two days, there was an influx of material and moral help for the refugees from different parts of the society. Although it was needed in this instance, we have to be mindful that there are potential dangers of inequity and chaos when aids and rescue tasks are unstructured. Some families or refugee centres may receive too much help, while others hardly at all. Children are the first to suffer. In any crisis situation, if there is nobody to organise the volunteers and channel their input, it may be like having water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.
Therefore, good planning can inevitably increase the efficiency and quality of support given. In crises, leadership is also vital in coordinating operations among different parties including government officers, civil society members and disaster victims. In addition, well-intentioned staff with adequate skills are a sine qua non condition for the good management of support services to child refugees. Staff should be trained to understand that children are not ‘small adults’. They are still developing and are more vulnerable than adults. It is commonly advanced in international research that, during and after disaster events, the emotional responses of children can vary from mild stress reactions to mental health conditions such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Possible signs of trauma among children who have been in refugee centres during ‘Berguitta’ should not be ignored. I recommend the authorities concerned to conduct assessments of the mental state of all these children and arrange for appropriate psychological support and follow-up where needed.
As the Ombudsperson for Children, it was my duty to listen to children affected by ‘Berguitta’. It is always important to talk with children about how they feel. Through these conversations, we can pick up essential feedback on what they would have wanted to be different for them. Post-‘Berguitta’, staff members of my office interviewed some children on their experiences. The following are examples of some of their statements in Mauritian Creole:
“Kan dilo inn koumans vinn kot nou, monn gayn tro boukou laper. Mo koumans kriye. Papa dir nou tou ‘Sove aster, kit lakaz sinon nou pou mor nwaye’”. (11-year-old boy)
“Mo pann gayn letan pran mo ti telefonn tantinn Mary ti donn mwa pou Noel [li plore]. Dan sant, mo pa gayn dormi. Mo sagrin mo telefonn, mo zoli rob lane. Tou finn gayn labou.” (13-year-old girl)
“Mo sagrin mo mama. So latet fatige. Toulezur li alim labuzi pu dir Bondye pa avoy enn lot Berguitta.” (10-year-old boy)
“Mo papa ti ramas 200 roupi dan bol. Kas-la inn ale dan debordman [pleurs].” (7-year-old girl)
“Dan Sant, bann-la lager. Mo anvi al twalet. Pa kapav al twalet. Tro boukou dimounn. Mama amenn mwa deor dan gro divan. Zot dir mo malelve. Mo bizin tini.” (8-year-old girl)
“Ti pe gayn fin. Nou gayn bon manze. Monn byin manze. Mo trouv Minis. Li finn koz boukou ar mo mama. Mama dir ti bon nou gayn enn vre lakaz”. (14-year-old girl)
Last but not the least, ‘Berguitta’ has highlighted to us that the right to housing has particular significance for children. Our State has to put in place special provisions to ensure children’s rights to life, survival and development within a safe and sustainable physical environment. The Government has to provide decent accommodation to all families with children who cannot afford to do so. These houses should be built in ways that can withstand destructive climatic conditions. Without this basic need, children are unlikely to realise their right to grow and develop in an atmosphere of moral and material security.
‘Berguitta’ has indeed reminded us of our fundamental duty to protect children. The time for reflection has come, true reflection that will lead to action. A lack of reflection can have a strong negative effect on the way a country is managed. Reflection without genuine actions can also jeopardise the future of the children of our Republic. I am deeply convinced that we as a nation will not let this happen because WE CARE FOR OUR CHILDREN.