It is a well-documented fact that women and children fare worst in wars and conflicts irrespective of where they take place. The conflict zone in the northern Rakhine state of Myanmar is no exception. Horrific accounts from Rohingyas who have made it into Bangladesh include stories about babies being “beheaded and burned alive” and countless women and girls having endured sexual violence.
Out of the more than 400,000 Rohingya refugees who came to Bangladesh in the past few weeks, an “unprecedented” 60 percent (that's more than 200,000) are children. Most of the remaining refugees are women, many of whom are pregnant. Dhaka Tribune reported that within the first 15 days of the crisis beginning, around 100 babies were born in the no man's land between the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, while The Guardian reported on September 17 that more than 400 babies were born in the past 15 days in the same area.
I saw people commenting in disgust on social media that Rohingyas “breed like rabbits”. But a friend of mine, who is working at a temporary medical camp at Shah Porir Dwip, offered a different explanation. There are, on average, three to four children with each Rohingya woman coming for treatment, she says. Irritated, a doctor at the camp asked a woman why they had so many children. “Burmese soldiers don't take pregnant women,” she answered. About 13 percent of Rohingya women of the latest batch of refugees are either pregnant or lactating mothers, according to UNFPA, who along with their newborn babies require emergency medical attention—to little avail.
Vivian Tan of UNHCR described to The Guardian how a man approached their clinic at the Nayapara camp. “He took us to this little basket covered by a blanket...he opened it and showed us two tiny babies. His wife had just given birth to twins while they were on the run,” she said. One died soon after. It is also hard to shake off the heart-wrenching photo of a Rohingya mother cradling her 40-day-old dead son, which made front-page news in many newspapers.
Worse is the fact that as many as 1,312 children arrived here without any family members. Surely, the actual number is higher as many remain undocumented. Christophe Boulierac, a UNICEF HQ spokesperson now stationed here in Bangladesh, met one such unaccompanied teenage Rohingya boy.
He told Boulierac that he had seen his mother and sister being shot dead in front of him. Asked how he was feeling, the boy replied, “I'm not feeling anything. I just want to eat, some shelter and then maybe I will start thinking.” Indeed, at this moment, only satisfying the basic needs of food and shelter is all that preoccupies them.
Meanwhile, UNICEF made an urgent appeal for funds because of the fear of a major outbreak of disease among the malnourished, weak and child refugees. Many children, who witnessed the brutality or lost their dear ones, are, as you would expect, traumatised. There are those, who, after a long exhausting journey by foot, didn't sleep and eat for days. In the chaotic temporary camps, where the struggle to get their hands on food is so intense that three people already died in a stampede, malnourished children and women barely stand a chance.
Aid agencies also pointed out that amidst the very unhygienic conditions at the camps and extreme shortage of clean water and basic sanitation, children are being exposed to water-borne diseases that could prove fatal. Prothom Alo reported that as much as 85 percent of children are already suffering from different kinds of diseases.
The most vulnerable of all are the unaccompanied minors. Who will look after these lonely children? Without parents or relatives, there is no one to make sure that they have a proper meal and place to sleep peacefully. “We are particularly concerned about the separated children,” Jean-Jacques Simon at UNICEF South Asia told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Trafficking, child labour, exploitation—you name it, these children are vulnerable.”
In many countries, a devastating humanitarian crisis of such magnitude had paved the way for ruthless criminals to exploit the situation. In Haiti, for example, three years after an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 had ruined the country, between 150,000–500,000 children were found to be exploited in some way or the other. Again, in 2013, after Hurricane Matthew left at least 2,000 children separated from their parents in Haiti, traffickers disguised themselves as aid or health workers to abduct or exploit orphans. We have a lesson to learn from these examples. We must establish a mechanism to scrutinise any organisation seeking to work for Rohingya refugees.
The US State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which downgraded Bangladesh to a Tier 2 Watch List country, expressed particular concerns about the Rohingya population living in Bangladesh, stating that their “stateless status and inability to receive aid and work legally increases their vulnerability to human trafficking.”
Managing hundreds of thousands of refugees is a task a country like Bangladesh cannot do alone. We need help from other countries and organisations. Unfortunately, if previous cases are any indication, there will be plenty of promises and pledges from the international community, but eventually, many children will die of what otherwise would be termed, not life-threatening diseases. Even if they do survive, their futures—especially of the unaccompanied ones'—are still shrouded in total uncertainty.
We do, however, have experience of handing Rohingya refugee camps whose occupants mostly consisted of children. Some of the Rohingya families who had fled their homes in the early 90s settled in two government-run camps—Kutupalong and Nayapara. Nearly 70 percent of the registered Rohingyas at the two camps were either born in Bangladesh or arrived when they were under 10 years-old. Now, twenty-five years later, maybe they have what is needed to survive, but their future is as elusive as ever.
There is, as of now, little indication that Myanmar will take the newly arrived refugees back, let alone those who came here twenty-five years ago. When we call them “illegal intruders” instead of what they really are—refugees, who fled because their lives were in peril—we are also complicating the situation. If we don't want to be ready to integrate these children into our mainstream society in case they aren't taken back soon, they will perhaps end up joining drug gangs like the previous batches of refugees. Thus, any effort of Bangladesh and the international community to address the issue of women and children (refugees) must include their long-term future, rather than only confining them in camps.
Nazmul Ahasan is a member of the Editorial team at The Daily Star.