x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Schools filled by Taliban escapees

Half a million children in north-west Pakistan may not be able to start the new school year in September because their schools have become makeshift refugee shelters.

Displaced Pakistani children attend a class in a makeshift school established by Unicef at the Jala refugee camp in Mardan.
Displaced Pakistani children attend a class in a makeshift school established by Unicef at the Jala refugee camp in Mardan.

ISLAMABAD // Half a million children in north-west Pakistan's towns may not be able to start the new school year in September because their schools have become makeshift shelters in the world's worst refugee crisis in 15 years. Around 3,500 schools in nine districts across the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) are now occupied by families who have fled the Swat valley and neighbouring Buner district since the military launched its anti-Taliban offensive in early May, according to Unicef, the United Nations children's agency.

It is unlikely that the schools will be vacated by their desperate occupants and undergo repairs in time for the Sep 1 return to school, Fawad Ali Shah, head of the education cluster for the UN Humanitarian Response, in an interview. "The implications are that if these IDPs [internally displaced persons] don't move out, then those children don't have a school to go to," Mr Shah said. "If the operation ends and IDPs leave, that is the best case scenario. But even so, rehabilitation of these schools would take time."

Around two million people have fled ground and air battles against Taliban fighters in Swat, Buner, Dir and other districts in the NWFP since late last year. The majority left Swat in the first half of May. Around 1.8 million have been taken in privately by relatives and friends in nearby towns, while 145,000 people are being sheltered in over-stretched camps. The possible school year delay for local children, who are not themselves refugees but live in towns where refugees are being hosted, is intensifying concerns among aid workers already struggling on ill-funded budgets to run makeshift tent schools in the 16 refugee camps and to rebuild hundreds of damaged schools.

Education had already taken a hit in Swat and nearby areas where the Taliban had seized power and were destroying scores of girls' schools in their bid to end education for women. "In Swat alone, 224 schools are damaged, some in the military operation and some by the Taliban in the months beforehand. Of those, 122 are completely destroyed, and by that I mean their roofs are on the ground," Mr Shah said.

In Lower Dir district, 275 schools were used to house IDPs in January to help shelter an earlier wave of 550,000 refugees from battles in Bajaur and Mohmand tribal agencies along the Afghan border. "It took four months to rehabilitate those 275 schools after the IDPs vacated. Water and sanitation facilities were damaged beyond use; classroom furniture had been broken and used to make cooking fires. They were in a pretty bad state.

"It was a massive effort just repairing that many schools before they could be used again for classes, and now we've got 3,500 being used as shelters." The demand for emergency shelter is rising rapidly, with 380 more schools each week being converted to accommodate refugees since the provincial government first gave the order in mid-May. At the Takker Government Girls' Secondary school in Mardan district's Takhtbai, the first town on the exodus route out of Swat, 600 people have taken refuge.

"IDPs are still coming. We received 20 new people last week," the school principal Mohammad Qamar said in a telephone interview. There is little chance the school will be emptied in time for its 900 students to resume classes. "We are planning to erect tents on the playground adjacent to the classrooms and hold classes there," he said. In May, when more than a million people began streaming out of Swat on foot into Mardan, the fertile fruit-producing district, Unicef and other agencies dealt with the influx of school-age children by setting up "second-shift schools" - a strategy whereby extra classes were put on and held in separate morning and afternoon shifts.

But those schools, positioned in low-rent areas with high refugee populations, also became the first to be designated by provincial authorities for conversion to refugee shelters last month. Aid workers focusing on education support for refugee and host community children are operating with only US$7.4 million (Dh27m), 17 per cent of the funding that is required. "We are very underfunded," Mr Shah said.

Funds are needed to pay top-up salaries to attract government teachers to work in the camps in summer vacation time, for class supplies, and for rehabilitation work like repairing broken latrines and water supply systems. "We also need to support the training of teachers in psycho-social support so they can identify traumatised students. These children have seen war, they've seen bombs falling, they've seen their peers and close relatives get killed," Mr Shah said.

The UN and other relief agencies have so far set up 51 primary and 31 middle schools in the camps, and are racing to establish more as the camps expand. "These schools at the moment accommodate approximately 18,000 children aged five to 17, but this in no way covers even 50 per cent of school-age children currently in the camps," Mr Shah said. "Education indicators in Swat were pretty good, so these people are willing and eager to send their children to school.

"Some of the camp schools have enrolments of up to 1,500 students. "We are at maximum capacity." The UN has appealed for $532 million from the international community for its efforts to support the refugees under its Humanitarian Response Plan. Only 35.5 per cent of the requested funds have been received. Despite government calls for refugees to start returning to battle-scarred Swat, where the once serene valley's fabled peach and pear orchards are littered with rotting fruit, most families are reluctant to go home because roads are unsafe, bazaars are empty and there are fears of a re-eruption of fighting.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's special humanitarian envoy, Abdul Aziz Arrukban, on Sunday visited refugee families living in a girls' high school at Bughdad in Mardan. "I saw several families living in one classroom," Mr Arrukban said at the end of his field trip. "We need time to repair the buildings before children can return to school." bcurran@thenational.ae