Rohingya children staring at a bleak future
13-year-old Fatima (not her real name) is acutely aware of the importance of school. She fled Myanmar two years ago with nothing. She now lives in the world's biggest refugee camp in Cox's Bazar with her parents, two sisters and grandfather. She has faced difficulties most children her age never will. She wants to be a teacher, but not just any teacher. She wants to teach girls because when girls are educated, they teach others.
In August 2017, over half a million Rohingya children were forced from their homes. It was the biggest mass displacement of people since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The Rohingya children told us that they have witnessed rape, torture and killing. Some were raped and tortured themselves; many saw their friends and family getting killed before their eyes. All they could was run while their homes burned.
With very little, they made their way across the border from Myanmar to Bangladesh. In a remarkable act of solidarity, the people of Bangladesh gave them sanctuary and a sense of security that they had lacked in Myanmar. The world came together to support the people of Bangladesh: individuals, aid agencies, governments and the UN system mobilised to make sure that child refugees and their carers had somewhere to live and the opportunity to exercise their basic rights.
Because of this mobilisation, the tragedy of a forced exile did not lead to a humanitarian disaster. A large forest area in Cox's Bazar was cleared, makeshift shelters were erected, children were fed and outbreaks of disease were controlled. Although a major health emergency was averted, more than a million refugees continue to suffer.
Save the Children has been working in Cox's Bazar providing support to the most vulnerable people, both refugee and Bangladeshi children, in health, nutrition, hygiene, education and—perhaps above all—child protection. To date we have reached more than 400,000 children with our life-saving interventions.
But life for Rohingya refugee children like Fatima remains bleak. She is so eager to learn but has no opportunity when it comes to secondary or tertiary education. By only being able to provide a rudimentary primary-level education in the camps, we are failing Rohingya refugee children, robbing them of the chance to serve their communities and indeed the world at large. We are robbing Fatima of her dream to become a teacher. It's not acceptable.
The shelters children live in are temporary, made of bamboo and plastic sheeting. They wouldn't survive a strong wind, let alone a cyclone. One in 10 children are still malnourished. Fears of trafficking, drugs and violent crimes in the camps make children feel unsafe. Simple tasks like fetching water or going to the latrine after dark can be dangerous as children navigate through the poorly lit camps with little in the way of security. This is not acceptable either.
But it's not just Rohingya refugee children who need our help. The children in the communities who welcomed the Rohingya two years ago have also had their lives turned upside down. A quiet, rural network of villages and small market towns has had to deal with the arrival of a million people. Homes and villages surrounding the refugee camps are much more susceptible to the impacts of flooding and landslides because of the degradation of the surrounding forest. Healthcare services that were already at full capacity prior to the crisis are now overloaded. Resentment is on the rise. Children from the host community are uncertain about their futures too.
Yet two years on we are no closer to a solution, no way out, no avenue for the 600,000 children living in the camps in Cox's Bazar. The prospect of a safe, voluntary and dignified return to Myanmar is remote. No third country is coming forward to offer resettlement. There is no prospect of a significant, settled relocation within Bangladesh.
Rohingya children are said to be turning into a lost generation—a cliché often associated with long-term refugees. But they are not lost. The world knows where they are. They need support now to ensure they can learn, that they are safe, and they are healthy. They must not be forgotten. To do so would not be acceptable.
Rohingya children must also have a sense of hope: something to suggest that they will one day be able to fulfil their aspirations. The government and people of Bangladesh have done a great global good in sheltering the Rohingya population the last two years. They need continued support from across the world.
But long-term solution to this crisis lies in Myanmar. Conditions must be created to support the Rohingya's safe and voluntary return to their homes. For these conditions to exist, perpetrators of crimes against the Rohingya must be held accountable. Second, the Government of Myanmar must stop the conflict in Rakhine. Third, in line with Article 7 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, Rohingya children should have a clear and unambiguous nationality.
The lives of all children in Cox's Bazar—Rohingya and Bangladeshi—have been affected by this crisis. We owe it to Fatima to give her a chance in life, to support her in realising her dreams; and not become a victim of a conflict she had no part in.
The world must do better.
David Skinner is working as the Team Leader for Rohingya Response at Save the Children in Bangladesh.