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Millions of children missing school in Venezuela's hunger crisis

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Edited by Their News from reports by Dylan Baddour and Vivian Sequera Thomson Reuters Foundation

The country's economic woes are hitting education - and thousands of families are trying to get their children into school in neighbouring countries.

The economic and hunger crisis that has gripped Venezuela is also driving millions of children out of school.

Three million of the country's eight million students have been missing classes - due to lack of food, transport to get to school or basic facilities such as electricity and safe water.

"Hungry people aren't able to teach or learn," said Victor Venegas, president of the Barinas chapter of the national Federation of Education Workers. "We're going to end up with a nation of illiterate people."

At Socopo, in the agricultural savannah state of Barinas, half of the 20 public schools closed completely in February midway through the term.

They have since reopened but - along with the rest of Barinas' 1600 public schools - they are operating just three days a week.

Venezuela's hyperinflation and severe recession has led to millions of people suffering food shortages and malnutrition. Last month Their News looked at the impact on children under five and the effect on their development.

But education is also taking a battering due to the crisis.

If the children don't study, it's more likely they end up as delinquents in the street. Jessica Sepulveda, communications officer with Cucuta police

As well the three million children out of school - revealed in a national survey in March - huge numbers of Venezuelans have been crossing the border into neighbouring countries. Many of them are doing so to try to get their children into school.

A major bonus for Venezuelan school children was once free food. But state food programmes are now intermittent and when lunches do come they are often small and missing protein.

The problems are felt across the country, with children often falling unwell or dizzy due to poor nutrition.

"We were singing the national anthem and I felt nauseous. I'd only eaten an arepa (a local cornbread) that day, and I fainted," recounted Juliani Caceres, an 11-year-old student in Tachira state on the border with Colombia.

“From January to date we have never had such high levels of absenteeism, that in some schools it is 50% and 60%,” said Luisa Pernalete, educator and coordinator of the Education for Peace programme of Fe y Alegría, adding that many schools have stopped sports and physical education classes for fear of over-exertion.

About 1.5 million Venezuelans have left the hunger and violence of economic collapse and a political crisis in the last two years .

Across the border in Colombia, Martha Carbajalino, 46, talked to the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the city of Cucuta. She is like many migrant Venezuelan parents who are hoping to enrol their undocumented children into school.

Carbajalino aims to get education for Luis Angel, her seven-year-old son, - but she cannot figure out how.

"I knock on doors and no one opens for me," she said through tears outside offices of the Scalabrini International Migration Network, a Catholic organisation for migrant aid.

Thousands of Venezuelan children in Cucuta are not going to school - spending their days alone, following their parents, selling items on the streets or begging.

Every day more arrive. About 40,000 Venezuelans were legally entering Colombia each month at the end of 2017, according to Colombian authorities, with thousands more thought to enter illegally.

Aid groups and authorities warn poverty plus lack of schooling or daily supervision will push children into the ranks of Colombia's organised crime groups.

"If you don't educate a child, you can't correct that. You totally change the trajectory of their life," said Yadira Galeano, Norwegian Refugee Council manager for Colombia's border areas.

"Many kids end up being easy subjects for criminal or armed groups."

In January, Colombia enacted a national decree allowing all foreign children to register and attend school while they sort out their documents and legal status. But for children of undocumented Venezuelans, getting passports is virtually impossible.

"We know that Venezuela isn't helping at all. They aren't giving out passports," said Jonathan Mejia, the official in charge of school enrolment in Cucuta, a city of about 670,000 people.

"We need support from the national government in this process of legalisation of documents," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Venezuelans in the schools are stretching Cucuta's resources and more funds are needed from the national government to hire teachers, according to Mejia.

Some of the city's 59 schools have taken more than 220 new students without adding teachers, Mejia said. Some locals have stepped in, such as three police officers who volunteered to teach two weekly classes.

In the hills outside Cucuta, about 630 students attend a six-classroom school in two daily shifts. Three years ago there were 400.

Yadira Albernia, the school secretary who interviews new families, said many arriving students lag behind their Colombian peers.

One nine-year-old Venezuelan arrived having never been in school and a 12-year-old tested at the level of a seven-year-old, Albernia said.

The school, which draws public funds from Colombia and organisations including the World Food Program and the UN refugee agency UNHCR, donates uniforms to most new arrivals.

The school also provides a hot meal each day and teachers donate notebooks and supplies.