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Getting Children Back To School In Deadly Gang-ravaged Haiti

Against the backdrop of a humanitarian crisis and gang violence in Haiti, UN agencies are warning that children are suffering not just from a lack of schooling but also through witnessing violence.

Students in the capital Port-au-Prince have missed hundreds of hours of class time over the past year and now, now, more than one million Haitians are facing emergency levels of acute food insecurity, according to a new UN-backed report.

As deadly threats to school security continue in Port-au-Prince, and northern parts of the Artibonite department, UN News examined the situation on the ground and how the UN is responding to the worsening educational crisis.

Massive school closures

By the end of January, a total of 900 schools had temporarily closed mainly in Port-au-Prince, depriving around 200,000 children of their right to education, according to UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Many other schools abruptly shut in Port-au-Prince in late February, when armed gangs coordinated breakouts in jails, freeing around 4,500 prisoners.

Gangs reportedly now control 80 to 90 per cent of the capital, and in the ensuing chaos, UN agencies on the ground reported cases of armed groups recruiting children, spiralling violence, looting and destruction.

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“The Haitian population is caught in the crossfire,” said Catherine Russell, head of UNICEF. “Spaces for children have been transformed into battlegrounds. Each passing day brings new deprivations and horrors to the people of Haiti.”

Basic security is urgently needed for the lifesaving services and for aid workers to reach those in desperate need, she said, calling for the protection of schools, hospitals and other critical infrastructure children rely on and for safeguarding humanitarian spaces.

Classrooms become home

As of late March, violence had displaced at least 362,000 people, with many trapped in the besieged capital and thousands finding temporary shelter in public buildings, including schools.

Each classroom turned into a temporary home for multiple families. Playgrounds became tented shelters. Gymnasiums were transformed into open dormitories for those seeking safety.

“Many schools are not accessible as violence is ramping up around them,” said UNICEF’s representative in Haiti, Bruno Maes. “Some are occupied by gangs, others by displaced people and still more have been looted or destroyed.”

On the afternoon of 25 March, heavily armed groups entered a downtown Port-au-Prince school and set fire to 23 classrooms. Aid agencies condemned the incident.

In another incident in the Port-au-Prince neighbourhood of La Saline, 3,500 children were trapped in two schools as gangs fought around them. UNICEF engaged with the armed groups for four days before they could secure the safe release of the children.

UNICEF has urged all parties to safeguard students, educators, parents and educational infrastructure in line with the Safe Schools Declaration, a global political commitment endorsed by 119 countries, including Haiti, for better protection measures and support for continuing education during armed conflicts.

Terrorised and traumatised

“The situation is desperate for children,” said UNICEF’s Mr. Maes. “Children are killed, wounded, raped, displaced and denied access to basic services, including school,” adding that they are “terrorised and traumatised”, some after witnessing burnt bodies on the streets.

Amid the very clear dangers, parents “still want to send their children to school”, he said. “Education is at the heart of every Haitian family; people put a very high value on it.”

As gangs continue to expand their control of vital roads and ports, their grip is extending outside the capital and the threat to school safety is mounting.

Despite this, the majority of schools outside the troubled gang-controlled areas of Port-au-Prince and Artibonite are still functioning. Many have admitted children who have fled because of violence and insecurity, although some parents are unable to pay school fees due to increasing poverty.

Multipronged response

UN agencies have been working together to provide lifesaving essentials, like food, water and shelter, to thousands of Haitians in need and helping to get children back to school using new approaches.

Efforts include an International Organization for Migration (IOM) initiative currently providing psychosocial support to students forced out of school by the violence, and the World Food Programme (WFP) supports hot meals for 250,000 children across the country.

Part of UNICEF’s work is assisting families affected by violence and displacement to reintegrate children into formal education. Where this is not feasible, the agency works with partners to establish alternative, safe and temporary learning environments.

Redefining schools

The goal is to get children back to learning and into school meal programmes, according to a UNICEF report, published in French in late March.

If schools remain shuttered, distance learning can be deployed via radio, television and e-learning platforms. UNICEF is collaborating with the Ministry of Education to find a way to deliver this via Radio Télé Éducative (RTE) broadcasts on Haiti’s national radio station.

Other opportunities for engaging students during the crisis include boosting capacities at schools currently accommodating displaced pupils.

Learn more about what the UN is doing to help Haiti in our explainer here.

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