COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – A teenager who escaped death but was left orphaned and homeless by the Asian tsunami met yet one more agony: gang rape, one of several cases of child abuse being investigated in the disaster zone, an official said Saturday.
Of all the human tragedies emerging from the worst natural disaster in decades, sexual abuse of vulnerable children in refugee camps must be among the most shocking.
But experts say it’s not uncommon in times of conflict and trauma.
“When there is displacement and chaos, the possibility of this type of behavior is higher,” said Harendra de Silva, head of the National Child Protection Authority.
With nearly 1 million losing their homes, Sri Lanka has immediate concerns of survival, rolling out relief trucks as cargo planes ferry food, drinking water and medical supplies from donor nations.
But psychological and behavioral problems are certain to become more important as authorities gain control over the life-threatening issues.
De Silva said his governmental agency already is investigating several complaints of sexual abuse in centers housing tens of thousands of survivors.
So far, the cases of suspected abuse have been isolated. But officials are concerned that the trauma of the catastrophe, coupled with the close quarters in the refugee centers, could spawn many more cases.
“In the aftermath of displacement and shock you do see an increase of abuse and violence against women and children,” said Ted Chaiban, head of the U.N. children’s agency in Colombo.
He said UNICEF was funding the survey by de Silva’s group to identify abused children and provide them with extra protection.
Sexual crimes were an aspect of Sri Lanka’s 20-year-long ethnic war. Women’s activists said they had frequent reports of Sinhalese soldiers raping Tamil women, although few were prosecuted.
Tamil rebels have been fighting for independence in the northern and eastern provinces, claiming discrimination by the majority Sinhalese who dominate the government.
De Silva gave few details of the case of the gang-raped 17-year-old girl, which occurred in the area of Galle on the southern coast but not in a refugee center.
Hours after being washed ashore and left orphaned and homeless, she was raped by six men, he said.
Since Friday, two other cases of suspected abuse of children were reported, including one by a man who attempted to molest his granddaughter, de Silva said.
All the reported cases were in the south, he said after a tour of camps in the region.
A team from his office will soon visit other areas.
A church-run welfare center near Colombo, the capital, folded up its relief operations Friday after the clergymen heard that a minor had been abused, a relief worker who was working at the church said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The refugees were transferred to a government-run center.
“These are all vulnerable children and opportunists are taking advantage of these children without parents and in open camps,” de Silva said.
He said the children suspected of being abused were taken under the protection of child welfare authorities.