Police in Burundi on high alert during the student protests last week. Photo/citizentv.co.ke

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has said it is concerned about the arrests, expulsions from school and injuries of students in Burundi schools, and has called for all parties involved in the political conflict in the country to fully respect the rights of children to education and to protect them from violence.

UNICEF spokesperson Christophe Boulierac
UNICEF spokesperson Christophe Boulierac

Speaking at the bi-weekly news briefing in Geneva today, UNICEF spokesperson Christophe Boulierac noted that on May 26 and 27, 334 students had been expelled from two schools in Ruziba close to Bujumbura, under the pretext of having defaced textbooks. Since then, the children had been invited to go back to school, but many had not gone back.

Following this, on June 3, several high school students between 14 and 17 years old were arrested and interrogated for similar reasons, in three different schools in the Muramvya commune, about an hour east from Bujumbura, the spokesperson said. After the incident, other students from those schools had protested in the streets against the arrests, and two of them had been injured by gunfire.

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UNICEF was present on the ground and with its partners and was following developments in those cases directly, Mr. Boulierac said. The agency was deeply concerned by those incidents, which had happened in the run-up to school exams, he noted.

The spokesperson emphasized that all children in Burundi have the right to pursue their studies and to take their exams in a secure environment, adding that schools should be respected as zones where children can find peace and refuge.

Mr. Boulierac said that UNICEF is calling on all parties to immediately ensure the full respect of children’s rights to education in Burundi and their protection from violence.

More than 300 children have been in arbitrary detention in Burundi since the beginning of the crisis in April 2015, with most of them being detained in prisons for adults, in deplorable conditions, he said.

UNICEF and its partners had been continuously appealing for the release of those children, and more than 134 children have already been released to their families. Others have been moved to centres specifically dedicated to children, the spokesperson said.

About one quarter of the children going to Child-Friendly Spaces set up by UNICEF have shown signs of trauma following exposure to scenes of violence, Mr. Boulierac said.

There are more than 25,000 internally displaced people in Burundi, 58 per cent of them children. In addition, there are more than 260,000 refugees in neighbouring countries, 54 per cent of them children. Since the beginning of the crisis, 30 children have been killed, according to the spokesperson.

He also noted that another worrying element was that the national education budget in Burundi has decreased by one third and the health-care budget by more than half.

More than 1,800,000 children under 5 years old in Burundi and 500,000 pregnant women have been affected by the shortage of essential drugs.

UNICEF has stepped in to provide essential drugs to cover immediate needs, but a significant funding gap remains, Mr. Boulierac said, adding that if funding is not secured, health services for children risk being jeopardized across Burundi’s 900 health centres and 46 district hospitals.

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