Many of Iraq’s schools are already heavily impacted and schools are forced to have two or three shifts. As a result, students have just a few hours of class time rather than a full a day. Photo: iraqinews.com
BAGHDAD, Iraq — As Iraq’s new academic year begins, the war-weary country is facing yet another crisis: schools that can’t open because squatters occupy them.
The government has not been able to cope with the flood of displaced Iraqis who fled to Dohuk, Baghdad and other provinces in recent months, forcing many refugees to use classrooms as temporary housing.
In addition to the acute shortage of schools — an estimated 3,500 additional institutions need to be built in Baghdad alone, according to one expert — the squatting is now becoming a serious impediment to schools opening for the start of the academic year on Sept. 21, Ministry of Education officials say.
“Although they’re going through a hard time, the presence of internally displaced persons in schools also creates a big problem for the ministry,” said Ministry of Education spokeswoman Salama al-Hassan. “All of the provinces have agreed to provide safe housing for the displaced. The start of a new academic year must be respected.”
Hassan said the ministry has contacted all of its provincial branches and local governments aside from the Kurdistan Region, telling them they “need to speed up securing housing for the displaced.”
The hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have fled the Islamic State (IS) and violence in other areas such as Anbar province over the past two months is creating pressure on the education system.
Many of Iraq’s schools are already heavily impacted and schools are forced to have two or three shifts. As a result, students have just a few hours of class time rather than a full a day.
Baghdad’s provincial council estimates that 425 of the capital’s 16,000 schools are occupied by IDPs.
The Baghdad council’s chief rapporteur, Farhan Qasim, said the shortage is acute.
“There are 239 school under construction in Baghdad province right now, but they still need to build 3,500 new schools in order to accommodate the current students,” he said.
He added, “The provincial council is currently developing a plan to transfer a portion of the displaced people who are in schools to Nabi Yunis complex in Nahrawan area, southeast of Baghdad, while others remain in the abandoned schools.”
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), meanwhile, which is hosting 1.4 million refugees from Syria and other parts of Iraq, is facing similar issues and announced it would not postpone the start of the new academic year. The KRG’s Ministry of Education appealed to international organizations to speed up efforts to house IDPs, especially Dohuk where thousands of Yezidis fled an attack by Islamic extremists in neighboring Nineveh province last month.
The Federation of Kurdistan Teachers, however, suggested postponing the start of the new school year for one month until the schools can be cleared of IDPs.
The Immigration Ministry said Iraqi provinces are setting up camps for the displaced and moving them out of schools.
Ministry Director-General Sattar Nowruz said the central government has an agreement with the provinces to create camps for the displaced.
“The wave of IDPs has taken an unprecedented and dangerous turn. Even though we dealt with displacement cases before and after 2007 (the sectarian war), this is a huge wave of displacement and the ministry’s continuous efforts to settle them in various parts of the country still remains a challenge.”
He added, “Displaced families are experiencing difficult times, especially the Turkmen, Shabak, Yezidis and Christians who fled their areas because of threats by ISIS’ criminal gangs. They need the collective efforts of everyone in Iraq to provide them with shelter.”