Beyond survival: Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh want to learn

UNICEF Advocacy Alert | August 2019


Rohingya children and young people want more than survival – they want a hopeful future, too

For the last two years, more than 900,000 stateless Rohingya refugees living in the camps of the Cox’s Bazar district in southeast Bangladesh have focused on survival.

New infrastructure and efforts aimed at providing the basics of health care, nutrition, and water, sanitation and hygiene have improved conditions for the children and families who fled persecution and violence in Myanmar.

But as the refugee crisis drags past the two-year mark, children and young people are clamouring for more than survival; they want quality education that can provide a path to a more hopeful future.

Crisis at a glance

A young boy walks to a learning centre during the monsoon rains in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

What’s happening?

Rohingya who fled persecution and violence in Myanmar starting in August 2017 found refuge among an already vulnerable population in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh. As of August 2019, a total of 1.2 million people – including 683,000 children – were in need of humanitarian assistance.

What are conditions like in Cox’s Bazar?

The vast majority of the recent refugees live in a series of congested camps constructed of bamboo and tarpaulin.While the camps of Cox’s Bazar district have acquired a sense of stability, the dangers of life there – for example, violence and trafficking – remain all too real.

What next?

The root causes of the violence that drove Rohingya from Myanmar remain unresolved. Conditions have not been established that would allow the refugees to return to their homes. The result is that the Rohingya refugees will remain in Bangladesh for the immediate future. 

A desire for education

For children and young people, the protracted sense of limbo has awoken an intense desire for learning opportunities that prepare them for the future.

UNICEF and its partners have ensured access to learning for 192,000 Rohingya children aged 4 to 14, who are enrolled in 2,167 learning centres. At the same time, the latest assessments show that overall, 640 additional learning centres are needed to accommodate 61,400 children aged 3 to 14. Meanwhile, 97 per cent of children aged 15 to 18 are still not attending any type of educational facility.

Parents are concerned that the longer their children are deprived of education, the greater the risk that they will be exposed to exploitation and abuse.

Children recite a lesson at a UNICEF-backed learning space in the Kutapalong Rohingya refugee mega camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

Challenges ahead

Adolescents are the most excluded of all when it comes to learning, and even younger adolescents find little to do in the camp. This idleness and a lack of opportunity can be a recipe for trouble.

Education for girls lags even further behind. In most cases, when girls reach puberty, they are withdrawn from school by their families. Surveys suggest that changing this longstanding practice will be very difficult. However, initiatives such as single sex shifts in learning centres are being tested.

A girl prepares some tools while attending a workshop on installing and repairing solar panels in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

Back to the drawing board

While the quality of learning for younger children needs strengthening, an entire adolescent curriculum needs to be established, offering foundational skills in literacy and numeracy alongside more practical vocational skills that can translate into opportunities in entrepreneurship.

This task can only be achieved and taken to scale with the full backing of a wide range of partners including, most critically, the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar. Having access to local resources such as teachers with the required language skills, learning materials and student assessment tools will be vital to success.

The international community must also play its part, making available the resources needed for such a large humanitarian undertaking.

A woman teaches students at the UNICEF-supported Learning Centre in the Kutapalong Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

How UNICEF is helping

  • When the huge influx of refugees began in 2017, UNICEF and partners responded by setting up about 2,000 learning centres in the camps.
  • UNICEF and partners have developed around 100 adolescent clubs and established a network of youth centres that offer psychosocial support and classes in literacy, numeracy, life skills and vocational skills. By May 2019, 21 such centres were in operation. The centres are part of a broader UNICEF strategy to expand access to integrated health, protection, learning and other services.
  • In January 2019, UNICEF rolled out the Learning Competency Framework and Approach, which defines learning competencies (along with approaches for achieving them) that are comparable to those that children would achieve through a formal school curriculum. The learning framework covers English and Burmese language, mathematics, life skills and science.

A multi-pronged approach

However, a lack of education is only one of the obstacles children and families face in the Cox’s Bazar district. As the emergency response continues, it has become increasingly important to provide services that build bridges to the local community, protect children’s health and nutrition, and offer safe water and sanitation. UNICEF and partners are assisting by:

Creating safe spaces

As the situation for Rohingya refugees has become increasingly protracted, protecting children – especially girls and children with disabilities – from violence, trafficking and other dangers remains a critical issue in the camps.

Despite investments in street lights, night can be dangerous for girls and women, especially on the trek to toilet facilities.

In response, UNICEF and partners have set up a series of static and mobile safe spaces for women and girls, as well as outreach activities in the camps. Staff are trained to advise women who have been victims of violence.

A group of Rohingya children at a safe space for women and girls at a refugee camp Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

Preventing disease outbreaks

From the onset of the refugee emergency in 2017, the difficult physical conditions in the camps fuelled concern over a possible cholera outbreak. And despite the success of a cholera vaccination campaign that reached more than 1.2 million refugee and host community children and adults, health officials – and families – must remain vigilant.

A child plays in the mud in a Rohingya camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, following monsoon rain.

Tackling malnutrition

When the Rohingya refugees crisis began, malnutrition was considered one of the biggest threats facing young children. Most had fled one of the poorest regions of Myanmar and endured an arduous journey with little to sustain them.

After intensive efforts by multiple humanitarian agencies under the Government of Bangladesh’s leadership, malnutrition among children under five dropped to 11 per cent.

As part of these efforts, about 1,000 skilled community volunteers were deployed to check for malnutrition. With UNICEF’s help, these volunteers screened an average of 135,000 children every month in 2019.

A baby is fed by her grandmother at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh medical centre in Teknaf.

Building bridges

The arrival of Rohingya refugees has placed stress on communities that already had some of the worst indicators for children’s well-being in Bangladesh. As a result, UNICEF and partners have also addressed local community needs as part of the refugee emergency response.

These efforts have included screening for acute malnutrition, construction of new, deep hand pumps for water and the provision of health consultations for thousands of young children in government facilities and community clinics.

Providing clean water

Until recently, most camp residents depended on unreliable handpumps, which often supplied contaminated water. However, the number of families with access to safer, piped water is steadily increasing. As of May 2019, 250,000 refugees living in the camp area under UNICEF’s responsibility had access to water, mostly at conveniently located tap stands.

The aim is to have piped water to all refugees in the eight camps by the end of 2019.

A child collects water from a UNICEF solar-powered water network that provides safe tap water for refugees from deep boreholes in Camp Six of the Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh.

Looking ahead

Two years after hundreds of Rohingya refugees began flooding into southern Bangladesh, the immense humanitarian effort led by the Government of Bangladesh has stabilized conditions in the Cox’s Bazar district. However, the task is by no means over.

The basic day-to-day needs of the Rohingya are being met. But providing for their longer-term needs – especially their educational needs – remains a major challenge in which the affected population needs the full support of the international community.

Ultimately, the solution to the crisis is to allow Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to voluntarily return to their homes in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, safely and with dignity, to live in peace and harmony with their neighbours as full members of society.

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