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‘I miss school’: 800m children still not fully back in classes | Global development

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Across the world 800 million children are still not fully back in school, Unicef is warning, with many at risk of never returning to the classroom the longer closures go on. There are at least 90 countries where schools are either closed or offering a mix of remote and in-person learning.

The UN agency’s chief of education, Robert Jenkins, told the Guardian that the closures are part of “unimaginable” disruption to children’s education.

“I didn’t imagine the scale of the closures when schools shut last year, and I didn’t imagine it going on for so long. In all our scenario planning for disruption, this possibility was never raised,” he says.

“At the peak of the pandemic 1.6 billion children were not in school and here we are, a year later, and 800 million are still suffering partially or fully disrupted education.

“There are a lot of lessons that need to be drawn, and one is the impact that prolonged school closures have on children.”

A new Covid-19 Global Education Recovery Tracker from Unicef, the World Bank and Johns Hopkins University is monitoring closures across the world, analysing where children are learning at home or at school.

Humanitarian organisations say the closures have contributed to a range of increasing abuses and degradation of children’s rights across the world, from increasing use of child labour to a rise in child marriages, often in communities were children already struggled to access education.





Ambrose, 11, who works at a brick-making site with his mother in Uganda. Child labour has risen steeply during the pandemic.



Ambrose, 11, who works at a brick-making site with his mother in Uganda. Child labour has risen steeply during the pandemic. Photograph: Sofi Lundin/The Guardian

While it is too soon for large-scale evidence to emerge, across the world human rights groups are seeing children increasingly taking on work as school closures take their toll.

A Save the Children report out this week warns that in Lebanon children are being put into work by parents desperate for money. The charity fears many of the children will never return to school. Jennifer Moorehead, the charity’s Lebanon director, said: “We are already witnessing the tragic impact of this situation, with children working in supermarkets or in farms, and girls forced to get married.”

In Uganda, schools have been closed since March 2020, putting 15 million pupils out of education. Only certain classes with exams coming up have been allowed to return. The rest will return in a staggered way in the coming months, though thousands of girls will not, having become pregnant or been married off in the intervening period.





Ambrose with his mother outside their home in Uganda.



Ambrose with his mother outside their home in Uganda. ‘Making bricks is very hard,’ he says. Photograph: Sofi Lundin/The Guardian

In the Gulu district in the north of the country, Ambrose is making bricks under the burning sun for pennies, rather than attending classes. His plight is part of a wider rise in children working in the region. “Making bricks is very hard,” says the 11-year-old, who suffers from an aching back and rashes across his body.

The children here still have fun, sometimes finding time to play hide-and-seek or perform tricks with skipping ropes, but Ambrose does not know if he will ever go back to school. His mother worries about the physical impact this is having on her children.

“Bricks bring problems. Physically, you feel pain in your arms,” she says. But she can’t see any other way for them to survive.

Girls have been particularly hard hit by the closure of schools across the world. In countries such as Afghanistan teenage girls already had a high dropout rate with about 2.2 million girls not in school before the pandemic. Now, groups supporting them fear that an increase in early marriage will leave even those who want to continue their education unable to do so.





Drawings about coronavirus on the walls of Clarke junior school in Kampala last April. The drawings were made by pupils just before schools closed.



Drawings about coronavirus on the walls of Clarke junior school in Kampala last April. The drawings were made by pupils just before schools closed. Photograph: Sumy Sadurni/AFP/Getty

In Kabul, 15-year-old Khatema is recovering from the death of her baby after a brutal and damaging labour. Doctors believe it was linked to her young age.

“She is still in shock,” her mother, Marzia, 40, says. “She thinks the baby is being kept alive in a machine somewhere, so we are not forcing her [to accept the truth]. We will tell her when we take her home.”

Her father decided she had to be married when her school was shut in March last year because of the pandemic.

Khatema’s family immediately felt under pressure to find her a husband. Her father was worried that she would bring shame on the family by being at home without proper supervision. He decided to marry her to a farmer much older than her, and they rushed the ceremonies to ensure that Khatema would be moved to her husband’s house before the lockdowns started.

“I wanted her to finish her education, but no one listens to me,” her mother, Marzia, says.

“I loved going to school,” says Khatema. “I only had one more year left, so it felt really bad when I was asked to leave. I was good at it too. I even wanted to go to the university someday. No one asked me if I wanted to marry.”

Schools in Kabul have finally begun to open in the past week and Khatema hopes she might return – and avoid becoming one of the millions of pupils whose education ends permanently during the pandemic.





Afghan girls play in a primary school playground in Kabul in March. Schools have only recently begun reopening.



Afghan girls play in a primary school playground in Kabul in March. Schools have only recently begun reopening. Photograph: Rahmat Gul/AP


While remote learning has become a familiar concept during the pandemic, it is not a panacea, particularly in areas with poor connectivity, or where parents cannot afford to pay for internet access. For children with disabilities, remote learning can exacerbate those difficulties.

In Colombia 12-year-old Andrés joins classes on his parents’ mobile phone from his village near the Venezuelan border on the Catatumbo River. The area’s frequent lightning storms regularly knock the internet out of action.

“It’s not the same seeing your teacher on a screen,” he says. “The connection is always breaking up.”

Andrés has spastic paraplegia, which impairs his speech and makes it particularly difficult for him to participate, even when the screen does not freeze.

Across Latin America and the Caribbean, 114 million children are still out of school, more than anywhere else in the world. Some public schools in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, have resumed in-person teaching. However, in rural regions such as Catatumbo, where Andrés lives, and where it is most needed, most remain closed.





Ana Milena Liberato helps her daughter Wendy Valeria, eight, with her homework near Bogotá, Colombia, in February. In Bogotá, four out of 10 children have no access to computers or the internet.



Ana Milena Liberato helps her daughter Wendy Valeria, eight, with her homework near Bogotá, Colombia, in February. In Bogotá, four out of 10 children have no access to computers or the internet. Photograph: Fernando Vergara/AP

Towns like his are hotspots for coca production – the base ingredient of cocaine – and the conflict between armed groups vying for control of it.

The number of children who have disappeared in the past year has surged as families have been pushed into poverty and have lost the teachers who watched over them, says Save the Children Colombia. Local groups are concerned that they have been recruited into armed groups or are working on coca plantations.

“A lot of kids have dropped out due to financial issues,” says Andrés’s mother, María. “Of his 40 classmates, around 25 still attend.”

Andrés hopes that one day he will be able to use complex mechanics and software to develop robotic limbs to help others with similar physical impairments to his own. “I like technology a lot,” he says.

“We always tell him that he may not be able to walk but that he can do amazing things with his brain,” María says. “And I say: ‘I might not be able give you these things but, if you study, one day you can give what we can’t give you to your children.’”

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Andrés Manuel López Obrador: Mexican president downplays tensions with US over Americas summit | International

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Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador sought on Tuesday to downplay the tensions that have risen with the United States over the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. The leftist leader has said he would skip the summit and send a representative instead, if Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua were excluded from the meeting. But he argued on Tuesday that this position is not going to harm bilateral relations with the US. “One shouldn’t think that, if, in this case, we don’t agree on the summit, there is going to be any break [in relations]. That is not going to happen under any circumstance,” he said at his morning press conference.

A US delegation was set to arrive in Mexico on Wednesday to discuss the upcoming summit, which will be held from June 6 to 10. The delegation, led by Senator Christopher Dodd, seeks to ensure that López Obrador will participate in the regional meeting. Ahead of the visit, the US ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, said on Monday that “it is very important that Mexico participates” in the summit. If López Obrador boycotts the event, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard will attend in his place.

The White House has not yet made a decision about whether to invite Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, but Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols told EL PAÍS that the US government is currently leaning toward excluding “countries that disrespect democracy.”

López Obrador supported his position to skip the meeting by invoking the Mexican Constitution, which enshrines the principle of non-intervention in foreign policy. “We have to stick to the principles of our foreign policy, of non-intervention and self-determination of the people, and we believe that no one should be excluded and that the independence and sovereignty of the peoples must be asserted,” he said on Tuesday. However, by actively supporting Havana, the government has shaken up regional policy and created a separate bloc with countries such as Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, which also want all countries to be included in the summit.

While maintaining his position, the Mexican president was also at pains to highlight Mexico’s strong relationship with the US administration of President Joe Biden. “There is a very good relationship. And we are working in a coordinated manner in economic, trade, and of course migration and security matters,” he said. “Independently of how it is resolved, we are always going to have a relationship with the US that is based on respect and friendship, and even more so with the people of the United States. The US government has treated us with respect and we also have a lot of respect and admiration for the American people.”

Since Biden’s arrival at the White House in January 2021, the two leaders have been in frequent contact. While they have had disagreements on issues such as security, migration and energy policy, both want to address the bilateral agenda through negotiation, which marks a change from the threats and intimidation that characterized the Trump administration.

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Learn lessons of Rwandan genocide and act now to stop Ethiopian war, UN urged | Global development

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African civil society groups have accused the United Nations of inaction over atrocities in Ethiopia, warning in a letter that it had not learned the lessons of the 1994 Rwanda genocide and that the “situation risks repeating itself in Ethiopia today”.

Tens of thousands of people are thought to have been killed and millions more displaced since war broke out between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party of the country’s northern region, in November 2020.

All of the parties in the war have been accused of crimes including arbitrary killings, mass rape and torture, while ethnic Tigrayans across the country have been subject to mass arrests amid a spike in hate speech, which has seen the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, refer to the Tigrayan rebels as “weeds” and “cancer”.

In the letter to the UN secretary general, António Guterres, 12 African civil society groups including the Kampala-based Atrocities Watch Africa, the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa and Nigeria’s Centre for Democracy and Development called on him to “provide leadership in ending the ongoing war in Ethiopia”.

“Twenty-eight years ago, the security council similarly failed to recognise the warning signs of genocide in Rwanda or act to stop it,” the signatories said, adding: “We are concerned that the situation is repeating itself in Ethiopia today. We call on you to learn the lessons from Rwanda and act now.”

In November 2021, the UN security council issued a statement expressing concern over the fighting, but it has yet to take any concrete steps towards resolving the conflict.

Last month, a report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accused forces from the Amhara region of waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans “with the acquiescence and possible participation of Ethiopian federal forces”.

Dismas Nkunda, head of Atrocities Watch Africa, said: “With reports of ethnic cleansing coming out of western Tigray, there is real reason for concern that some of these crimes reach the level of genocide, and it’s essential that the United Nations grasp the seriousness of the current situation and respond accordingly.”

The UN human rights council has appointed a team to investigate abuses committed during the conflict, although the government has vowed not to cooperate.

Tigray has been largely cut off from the rest of Ethiopia since the fighting began, with transport and communications links cut. About 90% of the region’s 5.75 million population are in need of aid, and the region’s health bureau estimates that at least 1,900 children under the age of five died of starvation in the past year.

In March, the government unilaterally declared a “humanitarian truce” to allow supplies to reach the region, but only a handful of aid trucks have arrived since then.

The letter urges the UN security council to press for “immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access [to Tigray]” and “impose an arms embargo on all parties to the conflict”.

The signatories also call for deployment of an international peacekeeping force led by the African Union, which has its headquarters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

“Such action will be vital to assisting the Ethiopian men, women and children who have been suffering both direct hostilities, associated human rights violations and obstructed humanitarian aid,” they said.

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‘Narco-tunnels’ become a factor in US-Mexico relations | International

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The US ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, shows a ‘narco-tunnel’, May 2022.
The US ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, shows a ‘narco-tunnel’, May 2022.Manuel Ocaño (EFE)

More than 300 meters long, 10 meters deep and fully illuminated: so is the latest narco-tunnel that authorities have found in Tijuana, on the border between Mexico and the United States. The underground corridor was used to traffic drugs to San Diego, California, and has since been closed. The discovery was not an accident: US Ambassador Ken Salazar had warned last week of the presence of over 200 tunnels during a visit to the border city.

The tunnel was discovered last weekend after a joint operation by the Mexican Army, the Tijuana Police and the Attorney General’s Office. The entrance is located under a house in the Nueva Tijuana neighborhood, a few meters from the Otay border crossing where Salazar made those statements. The passageway, reinforced with metal beams, remains under police protection. Authorities have not identified which criminal group used it, nor have any arrests been made.

Mexican authorities emphasized that communication with their US counterparts had been “close” and that bilateral collaboration had been key to finding the tunnel. Less than 48 hours earlier, Salazar had made the same points. “Working with the Mexican government, we have a very good collaboration in trying to eradicate these tunnels, which should not be here, because this is where a lot of crime happens, a lot of suffering,” said the ambassador in statements collected by the weekly newspaper Zeta. “This must stop,” he added.

A ‘narco-tunnel’ in Tijuana, Mexico.
A ‘narco-tunnel’ in Tijuana, Mexico.Cortesía

Salazar’s visit to Tijuana included a tour of a narco-tunnel discovered in 2009. The passageway, which also crosses the border wall, is known as Gálvez and is 270 meters long and 30 meters deep. The structure’s construction was attributed to the Arellano Félix cartel, a criminal organization created in the 1980s, which dominated the movement of drugs to the United States in that area for decades.

After the tour, Salazar, senior US anti-narcotics officials and Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard held a press conference announcing a $4.2 billion investment to reinforce the border. Ebrard exhorteed the authorities of both countries to “be more effective at the border against fentanyl, drugs and weapons that come and go on both sides.”

“[We intend] to ensure that this border is a place where people can walk from one place to another safely and where trade continues in a better way than now,” Salazar said. Last month, Texas governor Greg Abbott imposed tough security checks that virtually paralyzed cross-border trade. (More than 2,000 of the 3,000 kilometers between the two countries pass through Abbott’s state.)

After the White House’s urging to stop drug trafficking from Mexico, the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador has urged the United States to do the same with the smuggling of firearms. More than 500,000 US weapons arrive in the Latin American country each year, according to Mexican authorities, who began working to prosecute the US arms industry last year.

Less than a week ago, another tunnel made headlines in Culiacán, the stronghold of the Sinaloa Cartel, the organization historically led by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. A young man who was sleeping on the sofa in his house fell after a hole opened in the ground. The hole in the floor was attributed to the existence of the underground passageway, found in 2011.

El Chapo had escaped in July 2015 from the Altiplano prison, a high-security prison in central Mexico, through a tunnel that took members of his criminal organization more than a year to build. In the videos broadcast from his cell, the criminal leader is seen disappearing from one moment to another after climbing into a hole in the floor. Guzmán traveled more than a kilometer underground on a motorcycle. The capo was captured in early 2016 and extradited to the United States a year later. Guzmán had previously managed to evade several capture operations through underground networks of passages. The first tunnel attributed to him dates from 1989.

The longest known narco-tunnel measured more than two kilometers, and its discovery was announced in January 2020. It had tracks, air conditioning, an elevator and electricity. The entrance was in Tijuana and the exit in San Diego. “The sophistication of this tunnel demonstrates the determination and monetary resources of the cartels,” the US border patrol said at the time. Despite the spectacular announcement, the news came with no information about arrests, as with the last tunnel discovered last weekend.

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