Migrant detention abuse can scar children for life

Migrant detention “abuse” can scar children for life

BANGKOK, 21 October 2014 (IRIN) – An increasing number of migrant children are being detained in countries where they are seeking asylum despite a growing body of scientific evidence that such incarceration leads to long-term psychological and developmental difficulties.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2013 declared detaining migrant children is “never in [children’s] best interests and is not justifiable” and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says it should be conducted with an “ethic of care – and not enforcement”. However, according to a June 2014 article in The Lancet, more than 60 countries detain migrant children, which causes “deleterious effects on children’s mental, developmental, and physical health”.

Photo: Kristy Siegfried/IRIN

So when, in response to a recent surge in migrant children, the US was discovered to be detaining large numbers of migrant children, analysts flayed the tactic. Between October 2013 and September 2014, 68,541 unaccompanied minors were apprehended along the southern border, a 77 percent increase on the previous year; 70 percent reported they were held for more than the legally-allowed 72 hours. Human Rights Watch (HRW) argued: “a wide variety of research studies link immigration detention with mental health consequences for children, including harm that lasts beyond the period of detention.”

And when Australia, home to the notorious Operation Sovereign Borders programme, announced on 19 August 2014 that it would release some migrant children from detention, the plan’s limitations – an arrival cut-off date of 19 July 2013, and age limit of 10 years – drew criticism that the move might, in fact, exacerbate mental health problems. Karen Zwi, a paediatrician and head of the Community Child Health department at Australia’s Sydney Children’s Hospital, said the new release plan “will affect only 16 percent of those currently in locked detention”, arguing it could “heighten the despair of the other 745 (84 percent) children who have been excluded from the release.”

“What we see in children in detention is a huge range of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) for a prolonged period of time,” Zwi told IRIN, referring to ACEs, which the UN World Health Organization (WHO) defines as: “some of the most intensive and frequently occurring sources of stress that children may suffer”, ranging from neglect to violence. “The more of those that you are exposed to, the worse your outcome in adulthood is in terms of physical and mental health,” Zwi said.

Evidence mounting

A 2014 study published in the Medical Journal of Australia found that the majority of a representative sample of the country’s paediatricians “consider mandatory detention a form of child abuse”. Even among the 18 percent of respondents who “strongly approved” of detention of children in general, 92 percent said “detention of asylum-seeker children and their families is a form of child abuse.”

Evidence of the long-term impacts of child abuse is mounting: a 2014statistical analysis by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) found that abuse in childhood, including mental violence inflicted by conditions of detention, can have adverse impacts on educational achievement and personal income, and cause “damage at the societal level, including direct and indirect costs due to increased social spending and lost economic productivity”. For example, a 2013 study estimated the economic cost of child abuse in East Asia and the Pacific to exceed US$160 billion.

“The immigration detention of children and families, represents a grave violation of children’s rights and a serious breach of justice.”

Today there are more forced migrants (51.2 million) than at any point since World War II, according to UNHCR – the majority from Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia. Half of them are children; at least 25,000 unaccompanied migrant children filed asylum claims in 2013. According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), global migrants increased from 154 million in 1990 to 232 million in 2013. The International Detention Coalition(IDC) says states are increasingly responding by detaining migrants, and theNGO Coalition on Migration estimates one million migrant children are affected by detention globally.

Exposure to violence

Detained migrant children are exposed to all of the mental strains experienced by adult detainees. “The longer a child is detained, the more likely they will be exposed to… riots, hunger strikes, and self-harm incidents,” explained Oliver White, the head of policy and advocacy for Jesuit Refugee Services-Australia.

In Thailand and Indonesia, HRW documented detained migrant children witnessing fights and guards beating detainees. In Malta, which shoulders a heavy burden as migrants cross the Mediterranean and reach its shores, HRW found that children at immigration detention facilities suffer abuse at the hands of other detainees.

In a 2013 report on Manus Island, one of the off-shore locations where Australia processes asylum seekers who arrive by boat, Amnesty International quotes a service provider at the facility there as saying: “These conditions are contributing to a range of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, lack of sleep and trauma.” In its 2013 report on Nauru, another Australian off-shore detention centre, UNHCR noted “the deteriorating mental health of children”.

Researchers say the impact of detention can be harsher on children, whose brains, when exposed to multiple negative stressors, can be re-wired with stress responses that last into adulthood. According to Zwi, this is a process of creating “neural pathways”, or tracts in the brain through which information is transported between brain cells.

“Fundamentally the problem is a threatening adverse environment,” Zwi said. “A child with well-developed pathways for fear is more likely to be scared and avoidant, impacting learning and how they face challenges for years after,” echoing UNICEF’s claim that “moderate or severe acts of violence can alter brain development and compromise a child’s potential.”

Others point to the lack of opportunity for recovery from trauma while in detention.

“The natural process is one of recovery but that can only be done in situations of safety and security,” explained Belinda Liddell, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales with the Refugee Trauma and Recovery Programme, which works to “understand the psychological and neurobiological effects of refugee trauma and pathways to recovery”.

A full stop to detention

According to government figures in August, there were 876 migrant children in detention in Australia.

Australia currently runs some psychological counselling programmes for detained immigrants, which Amnesty accused of being insufficiently resourced. However, according to Zwi, “even a lot of psychological help cannot make good the terrible exposure kids are experiencing.”

In February 2014, citing that the number of detained migrant children was higher than during its last study of the issue in 2004, the Australian Human Rights Commission launched a National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, which is due out by the end of the year.

July 2014 analysis of government data by the Refugee Council of Australiafound that while the total number of migrants in detention had decreased, child asylum seekers were more likely than adults to be detained, and the average length of detention had tripled since September 2013.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians said in June 2014 that removing children from immigration detention was “the only way to protect their health”.

Refugee campaigners agree, and say the best response is to stop detaining migrant children globally. Alternatives to immigration detention implemented in some countries – including material and legal support – have proven not only more humane, but also cheaper than detention.

“The immigration detention of children and families, represents a grave violation of children’s rights and a serious breach of justice,” stated NGOs, including IDC and Terre des Hommes, at a presentation to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2014.




Hidden in Plain Sight: Bangkok’s ‘invisible children’ exploited for profit

HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT — Chun is a lanky boy with skinny legs, a round face, and docile eyes that defy the brashness of his bleached-orange hair. The 13-year-old boy sits in a narrow alley outside his house, wearing only a baggy pair of red shorts and listening blankly to the nasal cackles of his neighbor, an overweight woman with more than a few missing teeth. She is relaying the gossip of western Bangkok’s 300-person Suksanari slum, an informal squatter community on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River crammed wall-to-wall with sheet metal, caged chickens and piles of garbage swarmed by flies.

His teenage sister, sitting next to the neighbour, casually slaps at the flies that land on her legs, which are already scarred with brown, pox-like marks from the insects and bacteria that come with living amidst mud, stagnant puddles and rotten garbage.

 Chun, 13, lives in a squatter camp with his family. He quit school this year to work the streets to support his large family. Bangkok/ May 2014

Chun, 13, lives in a squatter camp with his family. He quit school this year to work the streets to support his large family. Bangkok/ May 2014

But the insects are the least of the families’ worries.

With no income to support her 10 children, Chun’s mother routinely takes the youngest ones begging near the gilded shopping malls and tourist haunts of the Nana and Asoke areas. In February, Chun stopped going to school. “I left because my friends also did,” he said softly while looking away, ashamed.

Chun and his sister are among 30,000 minors in Thailand who beg in the streets to earn money for others at the expense of their futures, fueling exploitation that robs them of childhood and exposes them to abuse and potential damage for the rest of their lives – if they survive.

Most families in Chun’s community are from upcountry provinces – northern and northeastern rural areas where during the harvest season they live day-to-day off meager wages for manual labor – harvesting rice, corn and sugar cane – taking home no more than THB150 baht by each nightfall.

But during the off-season, without work, desperation drives them onto buses, minivans and trains to Bangkok in search of a means to survive.

While the more industrious ones make a living selling tamarind and beans from street stalls, the poorer members beg along the tourist-heavy haunts of Sukhumvit Road, sell their bodies in Nana and Asoke, or make flowers for their little ones to sell to motorists stopped in traffic.

“Most of these parents realise that an education will provide their children with a better future, but the daily economic needs of the family push their children out of school and onto the streets to work,” said Tim Tempany, the Technical Advisor for the Thailand program of Friends-International, an international, Cambodia-based NGO that has worked with Bangkok’s street children since 2006. Friends offers vocational training to older street dwellers and plans to open a restaurant to employ youth by the end of 2014.

An estimated 30,000 children live and/or work on the streets in Thailand, according to research by the Life Children Foundation, a local charity focused on child welfare.

The economic expansion of the past decade has primarily benefited urban centers, so now the grimy inner-city streets of Bangkok draw in bereft, cash-starved Cambodians (60 percent of the child street beggars) and Thais from other parts of the country (40 percent).

Contrary to popular belief, the begging profession is relatively profitable. While in Cambodia, the average daily wage of a non-maimed beggar is a few hundred riel – roughly THB2 – in Thailand children under 10 often earn double the minimum daily wage of THB300.

This creates a vigorous market for panhandling and illegal migration.

Cambodian children as young as infants are pulled away from homes and schools to work the streets of Bangkok, where the average daily wage is about THB100 (USD3) to spend their days and nights sharing pavement with sex workers and sex tourists.

The children are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, illness, disease, drug addiction and traffic accidents. Without an education, their prospects for the future are limited to potentially exploitative labor– work in the notoriously dangerous and informal sex, construction or fishing industries – or even worse, they become involved in criminal activities or drug dealing.


Bangkok’s invisible street faces

The begging children sit on street corners, at the bottom of BTS station stairs, with matted hair and grime-blackened clothes, often sleeping with hands folded in a traditional wai while before them, a plastic cup beckons passers-by. For all the tragedy of their situation, their constant presence places them beyond notice to many, as much a part of Bangkok’s public scenery as street food stalls, orange-vested motorbike taxis and mobile fruit carts.

“The public visibility of beggars is in direct contradiction to the dearth of information available about their lives,” Friends reported in 2006 . Eight years later, not much has changed, but the NGOs working with the children are determined not to let them fall through the cracks and hit the streets weekly to reach out, contact and identify the young hustlers, handing out cards with an emergency hotline number.

The 24/7 hotline receives at least 50 calls per month from people close to the streets, such as tuk-tuk drivers, food stand vendors or bar owners who have been trained to recognize a child in need, according to Friends.

“These calls come directly from the children, from their relatives, from concerned tourists, or from our network of community volunteers  trained to recognise and respond to children in [danger],” said Tempany, who explained that the on-call social workers then work with a network of local partners including NGOs, hospitals and government officials to provide immediate, on-the-ground assistance and protection for the child.

Addictions, such as gambling, can even sometimes drive relatives to exploit children from their own families for the hopes of financial gain.

High-stakes gambling

Sopheap, a wrinkled elderly woman with short, greying hair, sits at the bottom of BTS Nana stairs with her sleeping granddaughter at her side. (Her name and others in this report have been changed as a condition to discussing their stories or to protect the children’s identities.)

Sopheap says the girl is 3, but she looks more like 7. An empty plastic cup sits in front of them, and the older woman looks pleadingly at pedestrians descending from the station’s stairs.

“Please,” she says, motioning towards her granddaughter’s bandaged foot prominently splayed on the pavement, “my granddaughter is injured.”

Sopheap is a chronic gambler from Poipet – the infamous casino resort at the Thai-Cambodian border –and has been transporting her five grandchildren to Bangkok to panhandle since 2010, according to Friends.

“We have known her a long time. Through our network of partner organisations based in Cambodia, we helped her four grandsons to reintegrate into school in Cambodia, providing them with nonformal education, and paying their school fees and uniforms,” said Orawan Saowapat, the Outreach Team Leader for Friends-International in Bangkok.

But when the grandmother’s gambling gravy dried up again, she pulled them out and packed them off on buses to Pattaya to scour the streets for soft-hearted tourists.

“She doesn’t care about their futures, she just wants to gamble. Without them, she wouldn’t be able to support her gambling habit,” Orawan explained.

They have since been taken by officials from the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security and local police to a government-run reception home for boys  There they will receive food and shelter before they are eventually returned to Cambodia.

Friends-International social workers visit three of these reception homes each week, providing informal education, life-skills training and recreation activities to unregistered and vulnerable migrant children like the four grandsons of Sopheap, helping them better prepare for their return and reducing the likelihood they’ll return to the streets.

Without safety nets, families in free-fall

Not to say all guardians are guilty of this kind of negligence – some work but are simply unable to make ends meet.

Chanarang sits on a rattan mat with his 6-year-old daughter at the mouth of the infamously lewd Soi Cowboy.

“During the day I work pushing carts at Pak Khlong Talad,” he said of his work near the old city’s flower market. “But I don’t earn enough to support my family.”

A single father since his wife left him two years ago, Chanarang said his 13-year old son lives with Chanarang’s mother in the northern town of Nakhon Lampang near Chiang Mai, while his younger daughter stays with him.

“Now I am working nights begging to earn enough money to afford the transportation to return to Lampang with my daughter,” Chanarang explained.

While life may not be much easier up north, at least they will be off the street. While Thailand has been considered an “upper-middle income country” by the World Bank since 2011, 5.4 million people still live on less than about THB30 per day – one of the root causes of urban migration and the flow of beggars.

Most panhandlers commute up to one hour by bus to work in the Sukhumvit area because “they make more money here,” Orawan said. “Especially on Soi Cowboy; drunk tourists give a lot.”

On a good night, the children can make up to THB1,000, according to NGOs.

“By giving money to begging children, a market is created that drives children from poor families out of schools and onto the streets,” Tempany said. “And begging children turn into begging adults who can no longer make the income they once did because they are no longer as cute, and who, without any education, have very few employment options available to them – and so they turn to crime or potentially exploitative labour ,” he added.

If no one gave money, there would be no market and thus no incentive for parents to manipulate their own children and force them to troll the streets to elicit sympathy.

“When you give money to children, you actually hurt them by keeping them in dangerous situations on the streets,” states the motto of Friends’ nine-year-old Child Safe International Campaign.

Reducing the appeal removes the market, and forces families to find another way to support themselves.

Friends helps parents find jobs through business microlending and training in how to make marketable household and fashion products, such as wallets crafted from recycled materials, which are then sold in Friends’ shops. But these services can only be made available for the Thai population.

The majority of Cambodian street kids endure ad-hoc police sweeps of beggars, leading to a three-month stint in a reception home  before they are repatriated back to Cambodia. Shortly after deportation, they once again scramble onto buses back to Bangkok and their usual street corners.

“It can be a very difficult cycle to break…but we do have many successful cases of children and youth, both Thai and foreign, who successfully reintegrate into their families and into school or vocational training,” Tempany said. “These cases make all the effort worthwhile and are what pulls our team of social workers out onto the streets every day.”

But getting close to see the grime and hardship of the underworld street life first-hand is no easy task.

Growing up surrounded by drugs and sex workers

The majority the children do not like working in the streets but do so because they feel their families depend on it, according to a 2006 study by the UN Inter-Agency Project  to Combat  Human  Trafficking.

Boupha, a scrawny, malnourished girl of 10 who looks more like 6, begs 20 feet below her mother, who carries her baby sister and sits huddled with their bags on the walking bridge near BTS Asoke.

On a recent day, she was sprawled face down with a cup next to her.

“She is just pretending to be asleep,” a scantily clad sex worker loitering nearby explained.

“[They] face many risks while living on the street: physical violence, sexual violence, inability to access social welfare services, exploitation, drug abuse…” said  Sirirath Chunnasart, a child protection officer with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Even the youngest children end up suffering unimaginably.

“We have seen children as young as 5 sniffing glue,” Tempany said.

In addition, street children are prone to many illnesses, according to UNICEF and NGO reports.

“The health problems that begging children face are generally caused by poor hygiene, staying on busy street areas with a lot of traffic for long periods and malnutrition, leading to a variety of stomach illnesses, skin infections, and respiratory diseases,” Tempany explained.

In another part of Bangkok, under the Saphan Phut bridge along the Chao Phraya, one child is short for his 9 years and looks as if he’s never had a bath. His face is smudged with black dirt, and he is covered in grime.

“He was born under the bridge and has lived here since,” Orawan said.

If the boy was ever given a name, no one knows it. So they simply call him “Phut,” after the bridge.

He is surrounded by a crowd of five older street children, including  a deaf-mute teenage boy. They run towards Orawan and the team, who are carrying an modified “Snakes and Ladders” board game – it is hygiene focused, so players move forward if they land on squares where they have to wash their hands, and backwards on eating foods with worms in them.

Surprisingly, it entices even the older, punk-ish looking urchins to gather around the game to play, laughing jubilantly as they roll the dice.

“We forget that in the end they are just children,” Tempany said. “They still just need to play.”

Sadly, fighting for survival in the streets doesn’t offer much time for that.

If you see a child in a hazardous situation and believe they need help, please call the 24-hour hotline for Friends’ ChildSafe network in Bangkok: 086 971 8861 or 1800 777 211 (free call from a landline). To reach the ChildSafe members of the Royal Thai Police, call 1300.

For more information or to shop for goods that will contribute to alternative incomes for low-income Thai families, contact Friends at:

3/8 Soi Sukhumvit 49, Sukhumvit Rd, Khlongton Nua, Watthana, Bangkok 10110

Tel: 02 260 4745


Laos “land grabs” drive subsistence farmers into deeper poverty

BAN HOUYTHAO, 22 May 2014 (IRIN) – “Land grabs” in Laos are driving poor farmers, including ethnic minorities, off their land, away from livelihoods they know and into further poverty, activists and experts say. 

A Hmong woman outside her house in Ban Houythao village, Luang Prabang, Martin Abbiati/ August 2013

A Hmong woman outside her house in Ban Houythao village, Luang Prabang, Martin Abbiati/ August 2013DSC_6644

“When these lands [are given] to companies and converted to industrial agriculture or other uses, it destroys the foundation of rural people’s lives, livelihoods and knowledge systems, as well as their access to food, nutrition, medicines and incomes,” Shalmali Guttal, a senior analyst with Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based NGO which campaigns for social justice in Laos, told IRIN. 

Large-scale land leases in Laos – or “land grabs,” as campaigners call them – are driven by foreign investment projects brokered between the government and private companies, which have increased in frequency in the past decade and encroached on the land occupied by hundreds of communities, according to researchers at the University of Bern’s Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) in Switzerland.
Ethnic minorities, which make up about 10 percent of the population, mostly live in resource-rich upland areas, which are often the target of land purchases by international corporations. 

Because of where they live, they are disproportionately affected. 

“Since many of Laos’s ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples’ traditional lands are in areas coveted for conversion into development projects, they have been targeted for relocation projects, largely without their free, prior or informed consent,” says Nicole Girard, senior campaigner for Minority Rights Group (MRG)

Corporations usually promise prosperity. For example, mining operations inLaos have claimed to create thousands of jobs and contribute to local development: The proponents of such schemes would probably point to the fact that between 2005 and 2012, Laos’ GDP increased from US$2.7 billion to 9.3 billion. 

However, increased poverty and higher mortality rates are often the lot of those displaced following a government-brokered land deal. 

“As most [ethnic farmers] have no education, if they are forcibly displaced, they have very few livelihood options,” said Debbie Stothard, executive director of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), a coalition of human rights NGOs.  

Researchers and activists point to the impossibility of continuing traditional farming practices, coupled with lack of work skills, as driving resettled communities into poverty. Land deals in Laos, they say, despite decent laws, are carried out with little transparency or accountability. 

Higher mortality 

“There are certain indications that there is a new poverty happening in Laos with the landless poor,” said Andreas Heinimann, senior lecturer at CDE, who co-authored a 2012 land report with the Laos Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MoNRE) . 

UN Development Programme research found that populations from uplandvillages that are resettled can suffer mortality rates of up to 30 percent when they are forced to abandon their traditional livelihoods and move to other places.  

“The impacts [of so many rural poor moving to urban areas] have included significant rises in mortality rates, conflict between communities, and a lack of access to education and health facilities, despite promises of such things,” said MRG’s Girard. 

When the government relocates farmers to consolidated villages near towns and cities, families in some cases have been given as little as 0.75 hectares of land – roughly half what they traditionally use for farming.

Most ethnic groups in rural areas practice shifting cultivation, which requires large plots of land to allow some soil to lie fallow to regenerate while other sections are planted – a system that is “completely different” from the settled farming of the lowland areas where they are resettled, according to Heinimann. 

In June 2012 the government issued a moratorium on new land concessions for rubber and eucalyptus farming, and mining. However, researchers say, murky land deals continue to drive ethnic communities off their land without adequate consultation or compensation. 

Lack of transparency 

Official data show 1.1 million hectares of land – 5 percent of the country’s arable land – has been the subject of roughly 2,600 land deals since 2010 (when the government started keeping track) for large-scale development projects, though some activists suspect leased land could be more than three times that amount. In 2012 the International Food Policy Research Institute listed Laos among seven countries in the world in which international land deals account for more than 10 percent of the total agricultural area.  

“Decisions are not made in public because [the government] doesn’t have proper procedures, and companies are operating in a vacuum of rule of law and policy,” said Michael Taylor, the programme manager for Global Land Policy at the International Land Coalition (ILC), a Rome-based secretariat for NGOs and UN agencies working on land issues worldwide. 

All land in Laos officially belongs to the state, leaving citizens with few options in terms of legal redress when land deals are brokered between the government and companies. 

“The government sometimes just tells people to move. Of course, we don’t want to go, but what can we do?” said Vong (he uses one name), a 25-year-old ethnic Hmong farmer in Ban Houythao village in northern Luang Prabang Province. 

The most recent domestic analysis shows that 72 percent of all land development projects in Laos are run by foreign investors – mostly from China, Vietnam, and Thailand.  

Investors target resource-rich and fertile land, especially forested areas, which ILC’s Taylor calls “winning twice” – meaning the companies are “harvesting timber and selling it before using the land [for other projects].” 

“In the rush to attract overseas capital, the Laos government has made concessions [renting out areas for intensive land use projects] extremely favourable for foreign investors,” said Taylor. 

While a 2005 government decree requires investors to compensate and resettle villagers whose land is appropriated for projects, loose monitoringmeans implementation has been piecemeal.  

“The legal framework is good, but enforcement is the issue,” said CDE researcher Oliver Schoenweger. “Most of the time, no compensation is provided to individuals.” 

For example, a lignite mining project in the northern Hongsa District launched in 2010 to provide electricity to Thailand will expropriate roughly 6,000 hectares of rice paddy fields cultivated by 2,000 farmers there. However, according to the Land Issues Working Group, an NGO based on Vientiane, the Laos capital, no negotiation with communities has taken place.

The government, in the report it co-published with CDE, acknowledged the lack of proper oversight allows such cases to occur. 

“Weaknesses in national land planning and the enforcement of investment regulations have generated concerns,” admitted Akhom Tounalom, vice-minister of MoNRE, explaining: “This case and several others reveal the severe disadvantages local populations have in land negotiations, especially where they are poorly educated, illiterate, or simply under-exposed to tenure or business-related standards or practices.” 

“There is a lot of scope for abuse,” said Taylor. 


Photo courtesy of Wendy Stone/IRIN

Kenya’s nomadic Maasai tribes rely on livestock for survival/ Wendy Stone/IRIN/ 2012

Analysis: Stopping disease swaps between humans and animals

HONG KONG, 13 December 2013 (IRIN) – With more than half of all human infections originating in animals, experts say a multi-sectoral, global response to zoonoses – diseases passing between animals and humans – is urgently needed. IRIN talked to a panel of experts to learn just how deadly humans and animals can be to one another, and ultimately how each can save the other.

“By neglecting the health of animals and ecosystems, we fail to recognize that human health is inextricably linked with animal and ecosystem health,” said Laura H. Kahn, a physician and researcher at Princeton University in the US. Khan co-founded the One Health Initiative, which links human health to how well animals and the ecosystem fare.

With almost half of the some 1,000 pathogen species found in livestock and animals kept as pets able to cross over into humans, poor animal health undoubtedly increases the risk of poor human health, experts warn.

Known zoonoses cause an estimated 2.3 billion cases of sickness and 1.7 million human deaths annually, reported the Nairobi-headquartered International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in 2012.

But then there are the unknown viruses, which are estimated to number at least 320,000, according to calculations by Simon Anthony and co-researchers published in 2013.

Scientists say preventing and containing zoonoses requires improved human and animal health surveillance systems, food safety and biodiversity conservation and – equally difficult, if not more so – collaboration among biologists, veterinarians and doctors for people.

Changing world, changing risk

A good part of zoonoses (some 70 percent of which come from wildlife) are directly attributable to human actions that have vastly changed animal environments, decreasing animals’ resilience against infection and boosting the risk of humans falling ill.

“Changes in farming and marketing systems have led to more and more pathogens present in society that human beings have never previously been exposed to,” Yi Guan, the medical doctor and virologist based in Hong Kong who first traced the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome(SARS) to live poultry markets in eastern China, told IRIN.

The planet’s population is expected to exceed nine billion people by 2050, leading to more pressure on environmental resources and food systems. By that time, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates global meat consumption per person will increase 27 percent (with most of that growth in China and Brazil).

“Urbanization is [linked] to the intensification of animal systems [in cities], leading to an increased risk of zoonosis,” said Fred Unger, a veterinary scientist with ILRI.

From the 1960s until 2010, due to urbanization, especially in developing countries, FAO calculated the global consumption of milk doubled, while that of meat tripled and eggs grew fivefold.

These days, each city in eastern China hosts at least one dozen retailers selling different species of live poultry in open markets. Birds taken from different regions of China to urban markets led to the outbreaks of SARS, H1N1 bird flu and the recently diagnosed bird flu strain H7N9, said Yi.

“There are direct impacts and consequences of the change in the farming and marketing systems,” said Yi. “These also provide increased opportunities and chances for human and animal interaction.”

While there are health benefits to moving animal husbandry into cities and slums, there are also zoonotic pathogens brewing in the unhealthy physical conditions animals are kept in, increasing humans’ exposure to those pathogens.

But it is not just people casting a wary eye at animals; animals would be justified in being suspicious of us.

Decreased animal immunity

Expanding industrialization, such as extractive industries, frequently establish worker camps in virgin forests, exposing wildlife to people for the first time, said Kaia Tombak, a conservation programme assistant at Wildlife Conservation Society Canada.

“Increased human disturbance and habitat loss cause elevated levels of stress in many animals. This reduces their immune function and causes diseases [in animals] to become more prevalent,” said Tombak.

Development-induced habitat loss is another contributing factor to zoonoses, say biologists.

The Nipah virus – a potentially fatal disease with respiratory symptoms that can infect the brain – emerged in Malaysia the late 1990s, when people destroyed massive sections of rainforest, the natural habitat of fruit bats, in order to build pig farms and cultivate fruit orchards.

Researchers theorize
that as bats, carriers of the virus, came into closer contact for the first time with densely populated pig farms, they infected a number of pigs, which then infected humans.

On average, some 75 percent of people infected died.

Yet, cross-infection can be prevented in these cases, said Tombak. Camps for extractive industries based in forested areas can install screens to prevent bats from roosting indoors and establish responsible waste disposal practices to prevent attracting wild animals to camps, she suggested.

Even when people and animals are not fearful of one another, there is a common potential enemy – warming temperatures.

Edward Allen, a research scientist at the Laos Institute for Renewable Energy, based in Vientiane, has noted that even moderate temperature dips and rises within 10 degrees Celsius can lead to more deaths in both groups.

These temperature changes kill thousands of animals annually, and can damage surviving animals’ fertility and milk production – affecting human nutrition – according to FAO.

Stumbling blocks

Half the world’s surface area has some type of disease surveillance, but most national programmes are based in places with the least number of outbreaks, according to the UK medical journal The Lancet. The journal noted in 2012 that countries with high wildlife biodiversity and population density are “hotspots for emerging infectious disease”, yet almost none of the major surveillance systems were based in these lower-latitude regions.

In an oft-cited meta-study published in 2008 in the journal Nature, Kate Jones and co-researchers recommended “re-allocation of resources for ‘smart surveillance’”.

Between 1996 and 2009, more than half of all emerging infectious disease outbreaks were in Africa – a continent that lags behind in early warning systems and disease surveillance – according to a 2012 report by the UK-basedRoyal Society of Biological Sciences.

And even where there is adequate surveillance, politics – including powerful agriculture lobbies – can prevent zoonoses from being identified and rapidly treated, said Kahn of the One Health Initiative.

When Q fever, an infectious disease causing stillbirths and miscarriages in sheep, cattle and goats, broke out in the Netherlands between 2007 and 2009, “the Dutch Ministries of Agriculture and Health were at odds with each other, hindering an effective response,” said Kahn, explaining that the Ministry of Agriculture initially denied the livestock origins of the disease, which eventually spread to more than 2,000 people, killing about 1 percent, by 2009. The initial denial, which lasted until June 2008, of Q fever’s origins meant “nothing was done to prevent further outbreaks… The disease continued to spread,” said Kahn.

Harnessing survival

But while humans and animals can spell each other’s doom, they can also support each other’s survival.

In 2000, the prevalence of fully immunized nomadic pastoralist children and women in eastern Chad’s Chari-Baguirmi and Kanem regions was near zero. In the same nomadic camps, however, livestock were compulsorily vaccinated by circulating veterinary teams.

Chad’s Ministries of Livestock and Health decided to join forces to carry outvaccination campaigns for pastoralists and their animals, resulting, for the first time, in 10 percent of nomadic children under the age of one being fully immunized wherever the joint campaign was conducted.

But while calls for such joint campaigns, which cut costs while reaching more people and livestock, have been proposed by FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) for at least two decades, experts say there is still not enough collaboration.

Part of the problem is academic “silos”, said disease ecologist Peter Daszak, who heads the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, at a recent standing-room-only session on One Health at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Health annual conference held in Washington, DC.

“Working with animals – that’s the easy part. But for human experts, we need to create a dictionary just for each side to understand one another,” he wryly noted.

“Nobody has the knowledge and expertise to do everything from beginning to end [of disease identification and containment],” added Yi.