UNICEF: 500,000 Rohingya Refugee Children Face Bleak Future in Bangladesh

U.N. agency warns of potential “lost generation” of Rohingya boys and girls.

A Rohingya man and a boy carry sugarcane to be sold inside a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Aug. 22, 2018.

More than a half-million Rohingya children in Bangladeshi refugee camps are being denied the chance of a proper education, UNICEF said Thursday, as a London-based NGO reported that one in two of the boys and girls who fled Myanmar without their parents were orphaned by brutal violence.

In a report marking one year since the start of a huge influx into southeastern Bangladesh of Rohingya fleeing extreme violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the U.N. Children’s Fund warned that children living in muddy refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district face a bleak future, with few opportunities to learn and no idea when they might return home.

“If we don’t make the investment in education now, we face the very real danger of seeing a ‘lost generation’ of Rohingya children, children who lack the skills they need to deal with their current situation, and who will be incapable of contributing to their society whenever they are able to return to Myanmar,” UNICEF Bangladesh Representative Edouard Beigbeder said in a statement.

On Wednesday, the child advocacy group Save the Children said its latest research painted “a frightening picture of a bloody conflict where civilians were targeted and killed in large numbers.”

Save the Children described its study as the largest of its type in Cox’s Bazar since a military crackdown in Myanmar a year ago spawned a wave of refugees crossing the frontier, with more than 700,000 Rohingya fleeing their homes and villages in Rakhine.

Myanmar security forces launched the crackdown in response to coordinated attacks carried out against police and military outposts in Rakhine state by an insurgent group known as the Arakhan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

The United Nations and the United States labeled killings, rapes and other atrocities that allegedly took place as a result of the crackdown as “ethnic cleansing” that targeted the stateless Rohingya minority. Myanmar does not recognize Rohingya as citizens, referring to them pejoratively as “illegal Bengali immigrants.”

There are at least 6,013 unaccompanied and separated Rohingya children living in Cox’s Bazar, where they face crippling food shortages and are at increased risk of exploitation and abuse, according to Save the Children’s research.

“Child protection workers in the area’s camps had previously thought an overwhelming majority of these children had simply lost contact with parents or caregivers in the chaos of their journey to Bangladesh – but the research suggests otherwise,” Save the Children said in a statement, citing its study involving 139 unaccompanied and separated Rohingya children.

Save the Children said its representatives had reached more than 350,000 Rohingya children in Cox’s Bazar in the past 12 months by setting up almost 100 child- and girl-friendly spaces that provide about 40,000 children with a safe space to play and recover.

“These children are some of the most vulnerable on the planet, and they have had to carve out an entirely new existence in the camps, without their mother or father, in an environment where they are far more vulnerable to risks like trafficking, early marriage and other forms of exploitation,” Mark Pierce, Save the Children’s country director in Bangladesh, said in a statement.

The aid agency said that while the figures presented in its survey were not statistically representative of the overall populace of the refugees, the 139 children interviewed in its research were randomly selected from its caseload.

“It is therefore likely that the experiences of these children mirror that of other unaccompanied and separated children in the camp,” it said.

Desperation, criminality

As international efforts are underway to prevent Rohingya refugees falling prey to despair and exploitation, police, human rights activists and criminology experts told BenarNews that about half a million able-bodied Rohingya refugees could potentially become entangled in crimes over their frustration over lack of jobs in refugee centers.

“Rohingyas are becoming crime-prone perhaps due to their longtime joblessness,” A.K.M. Iqbal Hossain, superintendent of Cox’s Bazaar district police, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, on Thursday. “They are getting involved in all kinds of crimes.”

About 42 percent of 1.1 million Rohingya refugees, mostly sheltered in 30 camps in Cox’s Bazaar, are able to work, according to a report by the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG), an organization that coordinates humanitarian and relief efforts among local and international agencies.

“At least 500 cases have been filed against the Rohingya in different police stations of Cox’s Bazar in one year,” Hossain said.

About 1,000 refugees have been accused of committing serious crimes, such as drugs and firearms smuggling, rape and murder, he said.

At least 30 murders have taken place in the camps in separate incidents within one year, Hossain said.

Josef Suriya Tripura, spokesman for the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC), told BenarNews that relief agencies had noticed growing frustration among refugees over their inability to support themselves and their families.

“They should have the opportunity to work, so that they can become self-reliant,” Tripura said.

A.B.M. Nazmus Sakib, a criminology lecturer at Dhaka University, told BenarNews after his recent visit to Rohingya camps that Dhaka’s policymakers should think about providing the refugees with technical education, allowing them to earn by producing handicraft while in their camps.

“Their involvement in crimes will increase, if they are kept idle,” he said.

But Mohammad Abul Kalam, chief of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission, said many of the refugees were “doing some jobs inside their camps.”

“It is not possible to give them more facilities at present,” he told BenarNews, without elaborating.

Grievances over restrictions

A few refugees eke out a meager living by getting themselves employed by NGOs as translators or doing other low-paying jobs inside the camps, according to some refugees. Many refugees have also opened shops in front of their makeshift shelters and could be seen selling cigarettes and other items produced in Myanmar.

“We are not allowed to work outside the camp area. That is the main reason for our problem,” Mohammad Taher, a 35-year-old refugee told BenarNews. “We cannot meet the needs of our kids for better food.”

But Jahangir Kabir Chowdhury, chairman of Rajapalong Union Council, said an undetermined number of refugees often venture away from the camps to find a job – a move that officially violates local rules for Rohingya refugees.

“Rohingyas are going outside their camps secretly and working as day laborers, rickshaw pullers and doing some other menial jobs,” he said. “Poor natives are not getting any jobs, as these Rohingyas are being recruited as cheap labors. For this reason, the poor are becoming poorer in this area.”

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.