By Jill Achineku
No one is really sure of the numbers. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reports the number of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in Nigeria as 2,093,030. Local civil society groups believe this figure is underestimated. What is irrefutable is that the future of a generation of children—especially their education—is under threat.
These displaced people, half of whom are children, have fled conflict, insecurity and an insurgency in the northeast by the Boko Haram group. Since 2009, Boko Haram has targeted schools, burning down buildings and indiscriminately killing staff and students alike.
An April 2016 Human Rights Watch report estimates that more than 600 teachers have been killed by Boko Haram and a further 19,000 have fled the conflict. It also estimated that between 2009 and 2015, attacks in northeast Nigeria destroyed more than 910 schools and forced at least 1,500 to close. “By early 2016, an estimated 952,029 school-age children had fled the violence,” the report says. That’s almost a million children, in just one area of one country.
Naomi and Deborah are two of the 952,029. Fleeing Boko Haram from two different states, they and their families made their way to the sprawling IDP settlement camp in Ikate in Lagos state. Naomi comes from Chibok, the town that made international headlines in 2014 after 276 girls were abducted from its secondary school.
Deborah comes from Adamawa State. Both girls had been attending school before Boko Haram put a stop to that. Seven-year-old Deborah had enjoyed going to school: “They taught us well,” she says. When asked why she thinks school is important, 11-year-old Naomi says, “Because when I grow up, I will help my mummy.”
For children like Naomi and Deborah, who made a 1,500-kilometer journey from their homes in search of safety, the non-profit organisation Sesôr is there to help.
Sesôr—which means “we will repair” in the local language—works primarily with people displaced as a result of conflicts. The organisation is led by Ier Jonathan-Ichaver, an alumni of the London School of Economics, who after gaining experience working with the United Nations in Geneva, returned home to give back.
For the last five years, Sesôr has consistently raised funds and provided relief materials to thousands of IDPs. They’ve also created partnerships with companies like Microsoft to empower IDPs. But ler believes that efforts have not yet gone far enough.
“Imagine you have young people under the age of 18 out of school; you know what you’re breeding next,” she says. “You’re breeding uneducated people who will be unable to get jobs and you’re creating the next set of people who are susceptible to being recruited. So really, education is a key focus.”
Getting displaced children into school has proven to be a formidable challenge. First, there is the systematic problem of determining who is actually displaced—Lagos state government has yet to provide a register. Then, even if a child has been identified as a displaced person, there is the issue of access to schools.
In order to enroll in state schools and subsidized education, parents must provide evidence that they are residents in the state. Displaced people are unable to meet this requirement, and parents cannot afford the alternative of private schools. If they do succeed in enrolling their children in one, they are often unable to keep up with the fees. Some have no choice but to go back to homes in the north—which is still far from safe.
Every day that children are not in school takes them one step away from their full potential. Sesôr has sought to bring together a roundtable to resolve this urgent issue. The parties who need to be involved cut across a wide range of agencies. Sesôr is still in talks with the government, other non-profit organisations, organizations in the private sector, United Nations agencies, and embassies, but they have yet to get a firm commitment. Sesôr hopes that after the roundtable, a register will be established, reunification work can take place, and residency requirements will be waived for displaced children.
Another issue that Ier wants to bring to the table is that of the children’s mental health.
“A lot of the children have witnessed horrible things,” Ier says. “They’ve witnessed their parents being killed, and possibly some of them have witnessed sexual abuse of their older siblings or even their own mothers. There is a whole slew of needs in terms of them needing some kind of psychological evaluation and trauma counselling. Eventually these children will need to be able to function in an environment. It is almost as if they are just left to their own devices to manage themselves.”
In June, Sesôr organized a meeting with IDPs and the former UK Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, MP Diane Abbott. Several displaced individuals were there to tell their stories of fleeing, loss, and survival. MP Abbott asked them how they wanted the government to help. Among the requests for the insurgency to be tackled effectively, they asked for the government to “secure education for their children.”
Meanwhile, as adults try to figure out how to get them back in school, Naomi and Deborah play amongst the makeshift shacks in their community. What do children in a unique situation like this want to be when they grow up? Naomi shouts out: “A pilot!”