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Rohingya refugee crisis: Children trapped in limbo and deprived of their basic rights

Cyclone season and the threat of violence loom over 720,000 Rohingya children like Mohammed. Their futures are at risk. We're on the ground providing lifesaving support, but more needs to be done to protect their rights.


>> Read the latest UNICEF situation report: Bangladesh, Myanmar


When hundreds of thousands of terrified Rohingya refugees began flooding onto the beaches and paddy fields of southern Bangladesh in August 2017, it was the children – who made up nearly 60 per cent of their number – who caught many people’s attention.

Today, there are an estimated 720,000 Rohingya children in Bangladesh and Myanmar, in dire need of humanitarian assistance and protection – and looking to the outside world for help.

Urgent efforts are needed to help the Rohingya children who are threatened either by the approaching cyclone season in Bangladesh or by ongoing violence and denial of their basic rights in Myanmar.

“This is a crisis without a quick fix that could take years to resolve unless there is a concerted effort to address its root causes,” said Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF Director of Emergency Programmes.

>> Read: Lives in limbo: No end in sight to the threats facing Rohingya children
>> See: Latest news

UNICEF Image: Rohingya refugee crisis: A Rohingya refugee boy is held by his mother in Bangladesh
© UNICEF/UN0160393/Nybo
Rohingya refugee Muhammad Shafiq, 2, who was severely burned when the Myanmar military set fire to his house in Myanmar, is held by his mother Sasaida, 20, as they wait to be seen by staff at a UNICEF-supported nutrition clinic.


A call to action for all Rohingya children

Everything possible must be done to safeguard the rights of all children affected by this crisis – an obligation both Myanmar and Bangladesh accepted when they ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“People won’t go home unless they are guaranteed safety and security, unless they have citizenship, unless they can send their children to school and have a chance of a future,” said Fontaine. 

The current crisis must be a turning point for coordinated action to address the longstanding violence and discrimination against Rohingya people, to restore and guarantee their rights and help them rebuild their lives. Rohingya children must not be left to languish in hopeless limbo. This is an investment in hope for every child and a better future for the region.

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Ismat's parents and four siblings were killed when their village was attacked in Myanmar. As she fled she was raped by two separate groups of soldiers. She is 15 years old.


A crisis of human rights within a humanitarian emergency

“I’d rather die in Bangladesh than be forced to return to Myanmar,” says Aisha, 19, who was raped by soldiers during an attack on her village in Myanmar. Soldiers killed her oldest child, a seven-year-old boy, as the family was trying to flee the violence. “They threw my son in the air and cut him with a machete. Then they threw petrol bombs and burned down our houses.”

The Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh brought with them horrifying accounts of what had triggered their chaotic flight from Myanmar. Tales of savage violence and cruelty, of homes and communities razed to the ground, of children murdered in cold blood, and of women brutally raped.

Independent confirmation of these accounts was hard to come by. But satellite images and the tell-tale smoke seen rising from many border villages left little room for doubt.

In view of the current restrictions on access and movement in northern areas of Rakhine state, it has not been possible for the United Nations or the international community to ascertain that the conditions for the voluntary, safe, and dignified return of refugees exist.

Until the conditions are in place in Myanmar that would allow them to return home as citizens, with their rights and dignity intact, the Rohingya refugees are stuck in Bangladesh – no-one knows for how long.

>> Read: When going to the bathroom takes courage

Thousands of Rohingya refugee children are at risk of malnutrition. UNICEF is providing lifesaving support to children who have endured so much.


In Bangladesh, aid efforts avert catastrophe but new dangers loom

Under the government’s leadership, national and international aid bodies have averted the worst consequences of this human calamity in Bangladesh – for now at least.

UNICEF has played a full part in the response to date in Bangladesh, digging hundreds of water bore wells, and installing thousands of latrines. Alongside other partners, we have helped the Government immunize 900,000 children and adults against cholera, and screened nearly 263,000 children for malnutrition. Learning and recreational spaces for children have been expanded rapidly, but still fall well short of the needs. Over 262,000 children are currently deprived of an education.

But huge challenges remain. The fragile camps – built on sandy soil and steep slopes – must be urgently reinforced to avoid being swept away in the coming cyclone season.

Meanwhile, vulnerable children – and girls in particular – are prey to traffickers and other abuses.

Decongestion of the camps is essential to ensure basic facilities reach all inhabitants. Currently, 100 people must use a single latrine. An outbreak of cholera or acute watery diarrhoea could kill thousands.


UNICEF Image: Rohingya refugee crisis: A drawing by a Rohingya refugeee depicting soldiers shooting and killing people
© UNICEF/UN0126672/Brown
A drawing by a Rohingya boy reveals the horrific experiences he endured while fleeing from Myanmar to Bangladesh, October 2017.

Beyond help inside Rakhine State: The children who stayed behind

In Myanmar, the scale of the challenge remains unclear. Only with unimpeded access to all parts of Rakhine State can UNICEF and other humanitarian partners meet the essential protection, health and other needs of the Rohingya who stayed behind.

And without a permanent end to the violence, still more desperate refugees will continue to make their way towards Bangladesh.

But a lasting solution requires more: the recognition of the basic rights of the Rohingya population – ending the legislation, policies and practices that discriminate against them; and curbing the tensions between the different communities in Rakhine State.

Much more must be done to tackle the complex roots of this crisis before its painful repercussions spread further still, and condemn a generation of Rohingya children to a perpetual life in limbo.


UNICEF Image: Rohingya refugee crisis: A child asleep among bags on the floor in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh.
© UNICEF/UN0142604/LeMoyne
A child sleeps among bags of personal belongings that were brought by Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, at a shelter near the Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh, October 2017.


16/03/2018: Geneva Palais briefing note on UNICEF Rohingya Joint Response Plan
23/02/2018: Cyclone season and threat of violence loom over 720,000 Rohingya children in Myanmar and Bangladesh – UNICEF
24/01/2018: More action needed to improve security and humanitarian access in Myanmar if Rohingya children are to return safely
16/01/2018: Half a million Rohingya refugee children at risk in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh with cyclone and monsoon season on horizon
9/01/2018: Briefing note: The situation of children in Rakhine State, Myanmar
12/12/2017: Bangladesh moves to protect Rohingya children from diphtheria
25/11/2017: UNICEF plane landed in Sana’a airport today with lifesaving vaccines for children in Yemen
1/11/2017: Urgent measures to improve hygiene practices underway inside Rohingya refugee camps
10/11/2017: Bangladesh steps up vaccination for new Rohingya arrivals as measles cases rise
03/11/2017: Malnutrition rates among Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh appear to be at least double earlier estimates
23/10/2017: Two months since outbreak of violence in Myanmar, Rohingya refugee children still at acute risk
20/10/2017: Violence in Myanmar driving up to 12,000 Rohingya refugee children into Bangladesh every week – UNICEF
10/10/2017: World’s second largest oral cholera vaccination campaign kicks off at Rohingya camps in Bangladesh
04/10/17: Joint statement by Emergency Relief Coordinator and United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock and UNICEF Executive Director, Anthony Lake
02/10/17: UNICEF appeals for US$76.1 million to assist children affected by the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh

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