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THE STORY SO FAR

 
At the time of the tsunami the British Government asked the British Red Cross to co-ordinate the needs of British citizens and their families caught up in the tragedy. Funding was initially provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Red Cross set up the Tsunami Support Network. This included a web site (www.tsunamisupportnetwork.org.uk - the link now takes you to a page on the British Red Cross web site), telephone helplines and a series of newsletters that ran until May 2006. Copies of the newsletters can still be read here. The Red Cross worked on behalf of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to organise the memorial service in St Paul's Cathedral held on 11th May 2005 and helped to arrange the first year anniversary visits to Thailand. It organised less formal meetings between groups of people on a local basis and was also involved in facilitating the auditing process that reviewed the government's handling of the crisis.

The Red Cross eventually handed over the responsibility for co-ordinating the needs of those citizens affected by the tsunami to a separate organisation, Tsunami Support UK (TSUK). Despite the similarity in name this is a completely separate body run by volunteers, funded by a small donation given via the Red Cross. It has no formal connection to the Red Cross and met for the first time in March 2006. The independence is a necessary thing but brought with it one serious disadvantage - the Red Cross decided that because of data protection concerns the TSUK could have no access to the mailing list of tsunami affected people. The TSUK membership is therefore made up of those people who have contacted the organisation directly and there is no doubt that this has affected the way information reaches the wider tsunami community. Not everyone felt that the Red Cross was useful to them and so a large number of people had already moved away from the 'official' bodies before the TSUK came into being.

At the time of starting TSUK it was recognised that the primary means of communication would be via the web and a pair of young programmers who had recently started their own web development service, Giant Systems,  generously gave their time and resources to setting up the bones of a web site, which they then hosted on one of their servers for free. The TSUK feel that it is not right to take undue advantage of that generosity, and the web site has now been rewritten  and is hosted on a standard commercial server.
 
PURPOSE

A detailed description of what the TSUK does can be obtained by reading the yearly reports of the Annual General Meeting, but the general aim of the organisation is to promote the concerns of the British tsunami community and to provide an interface between the community and the wider world. Initially the priority was seen as pushing through the investigation into how the governemnt had handled the tsunami crisis and to how the system we have here in the UK had managed matters. The Zito Trust prepared the initial report on behalf of the National Audit Office and the NAD's own report was finally issued in *** and can be read here.

The next task was seen as pushing for a permanent memorial for the British victims of the tsunami. In order to do so the organisation has to reorganise itself to become a registered charity and had also to find of way of promoting the wishes of the people on a government body not over-keen to allocate expensive space in London for such a purpose. The TSUK found itself gently being cornered into accepting a space in a run-down part of Battersea Park. It seemed at the time the DCMS was trying to combine the needs of Battersea Park for re-development with those of the tsunami in a rather shabby way and succeeded only in making a large number of people very angry. Under pressure to offer a genuine choice of prestigious sites to the TSUK the DCMS backed down and eventually came up with challenging alternatives. The current proposal is for a permanent memorial in the grounds of the new Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum. Details are still tentative and require a much deeper level of organisation and professionalism than the present TSUK board can manage but the process is well underway. A more comprehensive description of the history and current state can be read here.

The TSUK has an obligation to try to keep people in touch and to be aware of the issues that people feel important. It arranges an annual gathering (see here for past events) but because of the distances involved has also arranged smaller gatherings in other parts of the country for people unable to make the main event. In addition it also holds an Annual General Meeting in London. It fields enquiries from the media for interviews with tsunami victims and tries to keep up and forewarn of forthcoming projects that draw on the events of the 2004 tsunami in some way, such as the BBC film released in 2005.

To a large extent the organisation so far has been driven by grief - the majority of the active members are the parents of children lost in the tsuanami, and for the reasons already given the TSUK is less well-connected to the greater part of the British tsunami community that were survivors. Many of these suffered considerable physical and mental distress and the TSUK sees one of its tasks as campaigning for better (and cheaper) access to effective trauma treatment in the UK. This will be of even greater concern in the future and the TSUK would welcome input from anyone who has experience of this problem either as patient or provider.

The present (joint) chairman of the TSUK wrote this account of the work of the TSUK in early 2009:

ACHIEVEMENTS OF TSUNAMI SURVIVORS

Four years after the Boxing day tsunami, British survivors should remind themselves what they have achieved in trying to come to terms with the changes in their lives (and all their lives have been permanently changed), how they have contributed in helping, directly or indirectly, the survivors in the affected countries and how they have helped to reduce many of the hurdles for those British citizens who will be caught up in future disasters.   They should also remind themselves of the need to continue to push for solutions to the problems that remain.

Immediately after the tsunami it was apparent that the FCO (Foreign Office) was inadequately prepared to handle such a disaster.   Most of the staff  were on holiday and the initial feedback from embassies badly underestimated the potential losses and injuries to British citizens.   The initial response team was sent to Sri Lanka, whereas there were far more British people present in the coastal areas of Thailand.    These were not all visiting holiday makers; many casualties were among businessmen and their families and aid workers living in the affected countries and taking a Christmas break.   British casualties were amongst the last foreign visitors to be contacted in hospitals, and the attitude of the embassy shocked many survivors.   The emergency response lines in the U.K. were totally inadequate and the operators insufficiently prepared. 

Everyone has their own story, but it was soon realised that changes had to be made to the way tragedies such as the Boxing Day Tsunami were handled.   Many survivors (this term includes those who physically survived the waves, those who were closely involved and those who lost family and friends) individually and as groups put pressure on the Government through the media, their Members of Parliament and directly to the FCO to try to make the necessary changes to ensure that such failures would not be repeated.  Some of these changes were already in place when the 7/7 bombings took place 6 months later.

For the first time a N.A.O. (National Audit Office) report was issued based entirely on survivors’ observations about the failures of agencies and the improvements that needed to be made.   Survivors were interviewed; video recordings made and detailed questionnaires completed.   Videos were also made by other agencies to help train disaster response staff and survivors gave talks to various agencies including the FCO.  The personal experiences of survivors make a far bigger impact than impersonal presentations.  

Amongst the many changes that have taken place:

•    Two further emergency response teams have been organised in different time zones on a 24/7 basis.   No doubt this helped for the Mumbai attacks.

•    The HAU (Humanitarian Assistance Unit) has been established to co-ordinate responses to future disasters.   This unit is part of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).   The minister responsible is the Rt. Hon. Tessa Jowell.   The unit now works together with the FCO and co-ordinates other agencies.

•    FCO staff receives training in how to respond to disaster survivors.   Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates regularly test their emergency plans. 

•    The law requiring relatives to wait 7 years before a death certificate is issued, if identification is not possible, was relaxed for the first time.

•    Training for Police Family Liaison Officers has been improved.   Leaflets have been prepared to distribute to survivors to aid the liaison process and to reflect the fact that people in stress only take in 20% of what they are told. These changes need to be continued and improvements monitored.

Changes that need to be addressed/competed:

•    The FCO offered to finance psychological help to survivors for a period of one year.   This was no doubt well intended, but implied that after a year the problems should be resolved.   In fact PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) often appears years after a trauma.   There was no register of experts for the treatment of post trauma problems and there is a lack of doctors trained in diagnosis.  Availability of psychological help was often dependant on where survivors lived and who they spoke to. Not everyone was aware of the help available.  Recent disasters and the Afghan and Iraq wars will increase demand for psychological help and these matters have not yet been fully addressed. 

•    Over zealous interpretation of Data Protection legislation obstructed the sharing of data between agencies.   Efforts are being made to improve this by The Justice Secretary Jack Straw, who is well aware of the issues faced by tsunami survivors, and the amended act is under discussion in Parliament.    The problem is to achieve responsible and beneficial data-sharing while avoiding abuse (unfortunately prevalent) by Government, Local Authorities and Private Enterprise.   The proposed act is in its current form is being opposed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.  

•    Difficulties were encountered in reporting missing family members.    Improvements have been made to both the FCO and Police call centres but may still not be adequate for a large emergency.   The request for on-line filing of missing person’s details to Interpol standards has to our knowledge not yet been finalised. 

•    The tsunami prompted an unprecedented level of donations.   Most of the funds no doubt benefited the affected countries.   Some never left the U.K., or disappeared into the hands of unscrupulous officials in the destination countries, or in excessive administration costs.   Many NGOs did not consult the local populations and provided unsuitable housing.   Most survivors contributed in some way or another, many creating their own charities and sometimes raising 6 figure amounts.   They made sure that the money went straight to the people in need, often returning to the countries themselves to participate in teaching or rebuilding projects.  Better co-ordination is required for future disasters, a very complex subject.

•    It is ironic that there are many British citizens who are in financial difficulties as a result of the tsunami, having been orphaned, permanently disabled, or infected with tropical disorders acquired during hospital treatment.   No official funding was provided for them, largely because the DEC (The Disasters Emergency Committee) which co-ordinated the 12 leading aid agencies, completely forgot about them.   Imagine the response if 151 people had been killed and around 850 injured in a disaster in the U.K.   Those who applied for help to the Red Cross Tsunami Hardship Fund (established in November 2005) were met with daunting forms and intrusive means testing at a time when they were unable to cope.   This still needs to be addressed.

The majority of our members feel strongly that a memorial should be established to commemorate the tsunami.   They were given a choice of three sites, including Victoria Tower Gardens next to the Houses of Parliament; however 61% voted for the Natural History Museum as their first choice.   Before the 2004 tsunami most people did not know the meaning of the word tsunami, it is Japanese meaning "harbour wave" and refers to a large wave that strikes places like harbors.  After Alan Greenspan, ex president of the US Federal Reserve, in October 2008 referred to the current problems as going through a once in a century "credit tsunami", future generations may be forgiven for thinking that a tsunami is a recession caused by out of control traders and lenders allowed to run wild by a lax administration. 

We feel that it is essential to educate the young about the true meaning of a tsunami, how the 2004 tsunami affected the world, and why it is important in an era of global warming and rising oceans to protect natural shore lines.   Of particular importance are mangrove swamps and marshes which slow down tsunamis.   The Natural History Museum is the ideal place for this, and the proposed memorial could, at a later date, be linked to a display in the museum.    In an age when such major events are forgotten by the majority so quickly we do need to remind generations that tsunamis are not just strange occurrences which happen infrequently on the other side of the world. We need to raise awareness of the fact that geologists have indicated that tsunamis could occur in the future nearer home in the Atlantic, which would possibly endanger Europe, Africa and America.

Many visitors from around the world will have connections to the Boxing Day Tsunami and may well have suffered loss or trauma in one of the seventeen countries affected.  They may have had relatives amongst the probable 300,000 dead.  No one will ever know the full toll. No one should ever forget this natural tragedy.
 

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