On Monday, police in the central Philippine city of Cebu raided a temporary school for displaced Indigenous children and detained 26 people, including 19 children. Police allege the school was training children as “armed combatants” for the communist New People’s Army insurgency, and the raid was to “rescue” them.
The raid occurred at the University of San Carlos in Talamban, where the children stayed in a retreat house owned by the religious order Societas Verbi Divini (SVD). Police handed the children over to government social welfare and jailed seven adults who face human trafficking and other charges. A social welfare official present during the raid, however, belied the police’s claim about the school.
In a joint statement, the university and the SVD denied the police allegation, and stated the children were Indigenous people from the southern Philippines island of Mindanao who had sought refuge in Cebu City in March 2020 after the military drove them from their schools. The group was planning to return to Mindanao after the children finished their studies but Covid-19 restrictions have prevented them from leaving.
The military has repeatedly claimed tribal schools serve as New People’s Army training camps, prompting the Department of Education to shut many down. The Save Our Schools Network says as many as 178 tribal schools around the country have been closed since 2016, forcing affected children to seek education in cities like Manila and Cebu. The network facilitates these children’s education through so-called “Bakwit (evacuee) schools” such as the one in Cebu City.
This police raid is just the latest in a string of violent incidents targeting Indigenous communities and their schools in recent years. Indigenous groups accuse the government of driving tribal people from their communities to facilitate the entry of mining and other extractive industries into their ancestral lands. Military operations in the Philippines often occur in these areas, resulting in horrific abuses. Tribal leaders have also been frequently targeted in politically motivated killings.
Philippine authorities should stop harassing Indigenous peoples with baseless allegations. They should release those wrongfully arrested in the raid and ensure the children are reunited with their families.
This post was originally published on Human Rights Watch News.