Education for displaced children in Colombia

Campaigns, 14 September 2007

© UNHCR/P.Smith
Sterlin carries gallons of water from the tanks by the military base to his home, an exhausting journey of around 40 minutes.

I. Background

Two million people are listed on Colombia's National Register for Displaced People; at least one million more are estimated to have been uprooted by violence as a result of the internal armed conflict. About half of them are under the age of 18.

Under Colombian law, schools must accept displaced children in their new place of residence without demanding proof of previous schooling. Poor displaced families are exempt from paying the school's registration fee and from buying a uniform. But free schooling is available only to children whose parents have registered as displaced, and not for the many others who do not. The Ministry of Education estimates around 500,000 children are out of school.

II. Challenges

Before displacement, children in high-risk areas face physical danger and difficulties travelling to schools in mined areas. Sometimes, schools are taken over by armed groups during combat, and children risk forced recruitment outside schools. Teachers are common targets of irregular armed groups, making it extremely difficult to recruit in some rural areas and affecting the quality of education. Schools in conflict-affected zones are often not getting the special attention they need from the authorities and lack basic resources. Many children must work to help support their family, especially when their father is dead or absent due to the conflict.

During displacement, children often lose a whole academic year. Family dislocation after displacement and the psychological trauma of the violence children lived through are often left unaddressed and greatly disrupt their learning potential. Increased poverty after displacement forces children to seek casual work or look after younger children to help the family. The lack of basic resources like food and clothes makes schooling impossible. Many displaced families live in extremely poor and often violent urban areas. Children there are vulnerable to social violence, sexual abuse, and recruitment into gangs. Displaced children are often discriminated against in schools. For them, integrating in their new communities is as essential as learning.

III. UNHCR intervention

UNHCR supports the government's response to the educational crisis of displaced children, including the drawing up and implementation of educational and public policies that take their needs into account. It makes local interventions in high-risk areas, rebuilding damaged schools, providing school supplies and supporting teachers' networks. It supports national initiatives to provide remedial/gap teaching to displaced children through Learning Circles. Bursaries and training for young displaced people to access higher education are provided, along with psycho-social support through arts therapy or discussion groups. UNHCR consults with the Ministry of Education to ensure the needs of displaced children are known and planned for. It also focuses on the educational needs of ethnic minorities such as the Afro-Colombians and indigenous people.