Since 2004, disaster, conflict and economic need have combined to cause massive movement of people from their homes to sprawling temporary settlements, either in designated camps or on the margins of urban society. Current patterns of displacement are driven by counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations against non-state armed groups such as the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the north-west regions of the country. As of June 2013, there were 1.1 million registered Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province alone, and unknown numbers of unregistered IDPs living elsewhere. It is estimated that just over half of those displaced are children.
Internally displaced children face the same risks as refugee children; in some cases, they experience even higher levels of uncertainty, as they continue to live in and around conflict zones. However, there are no binding provisions regarding internally displaced children in international law, and few organizations have clear institutional mandates owning responsibility of care. In spite of the magnitude of the population movements due to intrastate violence in Pakistan, the Government does not consistently acknowledge its responsibility for protecting or assisting IDPs and has not adopted a national IDP policy or law. In fact, national authorities often refrain from use of the term “IDP”, instead describing individuals as “temporarily dislocated” or “affected. An entire generation, therefore, is in a state of flux.
While there is no specific validation of the crises of internal displacement, there are some rights that can be invoked by every individual. On the global scale, education has been recognized as both a basic right and an “enabling right,” that should be incorporated in any humanitarian response. As a state, Pakistan has committed to providing free, compulsory education to every child under sixteen. In practice, however, there are serious challenges impeding the provision of schooling to displaced populations. Presently, the authorities are placing emphasis on return and continuing to discourage permanent settlement of IDPs anywhere other than their places of origin. At the same time, efforts to facilitate return have been offset by forced movement due to ongoing violence. The situation of uncertainty means that internally displaced children rarely have formal access to public schooling. While those in camps can benefit from services provided by non-government organizations, those who are dispersed among urban populations are at a particular disadvantage.
The longer children stay out of school, the less likely they are to return. Thus, neglect at this point not only has immediate implications for children experiencing the trauma of displacement and disruption, but will also impact their future trajectories. In a fragile country wracked by terrorism, these children are particularly vulnerable to recruitment by exploitative groups. The choices they are given will in turn have implications for the future of their families, communities and society.
The idea of school space is a sacred one, where childhood can be protected and preserved. In a less than ideal world, both policy and practice need to evolve in response to dynamic needs. The international community, the Pakistani state, and the plethora of local organizations committed to Education for All have a serious task at hand, when it comes to constructing possibilities to follow the wandering child, lost within state borders.