Rohingya Refugee Children : Que Sara Sara?
Dr Sreeradha Datta, Centre Head & Senior Fellow, Neighbourhood Studies, VIF

A recent visit to a Rohingya camp near Cox bazar at Samlapore in Bangladesh revealed a reality that had been known about but not quite understood nor realised its full implications till the prevailing conditions for were seen.

As is well documented over the past two decades, the Rohingya population have been forced to flee Myanmar to different parts of nearby region including India, Malaysia and of course Bangladesh. According to some recent United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) statistics, India houses 16,990 and Malaysia has 97,650 Rohingyas. But from the mid-1900s, given the outbreak of hostility and violence, the largest number of Rohingya refugees have found shelter in Bangladesh. Roughly over three millions have escaped the Rakhine state, their abode for long, due to violence and adverse living conditions. The latest exodus of around 730,000 Rohingyas was perhaps the largest numbers that were forced to flee, post a devastating attack on them by the Myanmar military during August of 2017.

Explaining this last round of exodus that largely occurred between 25 August 2017 until 21 June 2018, it has been widely purported that the Myanmar army launched an attack against the Rohingyas only in response to some Muslim insurgents making the first strike. The disproportionate levels of attacks on the Rohingya villages and the yet unknown cause for the Rohingyas to suddenly initiate the violence in the first place never did quite square up, but there was nothing that the Myanmar administration did to prevent the large scale of Rohingyas being forced out. For many of us, images on television of the hapless teeming elders, youths, and mothers with little kids in their arms moving across the border with maybe just a cloth bundle in their hand, clearly leaving behind their hearth and home in fear and panic, remains stark and filled with horror.

The problem essentially remains over the question of nationality and citizenship. Myanmar never quite accepted this ethnic population as their own and insists on following the 1982 citizenship law that includes only ‘nationals’ as citizens, effectively excluding 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar from their rights and privileges. This law considers only those as citizens that have settled in Myanmar prior to 1824, marking the first occupation by the British. For Myanmar, Rohingyas are Bengalis who have moved in from across the border and do not belong their land or are the sons of the land. Rohingyas themselves argue that they have made Rakhine their homeland from the 12th century, having moved across as labours long before the British came to Burma and continued to do so for centuries since then. The two narratives obviously have no meeting points and any attempts by the international community to make Myanmar reform their citizenship laws have not received any response.

The Rohingya camps in Bangladesh have spread over Nayapara and Kutupalong camps in Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf, Cox Bazar Sadar, Ramu and Ukhiya are managed by the Bangladesh Government, and are also supported by UNHCR as well as the Refugee Agency, European Commission, World Bank, and governments of Canada, Turkey and India. The registered Rohingyas receive three kinds of humanitarian support – shelter, relief and medical services in the camps they are organised in.

During the brief visit, one caught a glimpse of children, girls and boys from age of four to early teens sitting in make shift school class rooms and enjoying the distraction of the visit. While doctors and social service sector staff including the teachers are doing their utmost under very difficult circumstances, the haziness about their future is difficult to ignore. How will these children studying Barma, English languages and mathematics be equipped for the future? They are not encouraged to integrate with the host state, and so Bengali is deliberately left out of their curriculum. Their exposure to the outside world is negligible given the camps and the restriction in movements.

In the makeshift shelters with bare minimum provisions, the children have almost no communication with the world outside. The banning of mobile hand phones in the camps due to the drug trafficking issues can only perpetrate the lack of connect. While the agencies have been able to provide for basic meals, the children have no access to information leave alone any means of entertainment, nor any livelihood programs to prepare them to face a world that exists outside these isolated temporary camps. Despite the best efforts by the host country, it is virtually impossible to provide hygienic conditions conducive to healthy physical and mental growth. These camps also record a huge birth rate, despite efforts by the public health workers to control the same. These Refugees, even when in their homeland, were managing to go by with very little but while their escape has ensured a life for them but there seems nothing to look forward to.

Bangladesh and Myanmar had signed an MoU for repatriation of the refugees last year and India has built 250 houses in the Rakhine region to enable the same but the ground situation remains unchanged. The international community is unable to exert any influence to bring an amicable solution to this crisis except for economic sanctions; it seems strange but unfortunately true that there appears no leverages available. The Myanmar Government remains intransigent. Notwithstanding some official meetings, there is as yet no forthcoming assurances from the Mynmar administration about working towards providing an enabling atmosphere for the Rohingyas to return to Myanmar. Thus presently the process of repatriation seems farfetched. Simply put, for Myanmar this is an unwanted population. The government, the military, the civil society including the majority Buddhists views this population with hostility, thus likelihood for any improvement in the conditions of Rohingyas even if there is some forced repartition, is unlikely. For Bangladesh, already struggling with its own huge population pressure, erosion of land and sea levels rising, providing the Rohingyas indefinite support cannot be a tenable option.

As yet, the children are happy to find playmates to run around with and flash toothy smiles when they see visitors (rare, as we were told). But the smiles are bound to dry up once they realise the despair that surrounds their life and journey ahead. The lack of prospects for the growing number of children and youths is extremely worrisome. Apart from the inevitable problems of health, education and other societal issues, the children, even in just a handful, could easily fall prey to unfavourable forces. The stories of youth moving out surreptitiously and seeking a life beyond camps is known. Some have made a living and found greater scope to live fuller lives but not all have been so lucky. Their vulnerability is obvious and undoubtedly pose easy fodder for those seeking such a weak spot. The children need to be steered not only to safety but a life that is meaningful and offers them scope to make something out of it.

Life in camps can be a temporary solution but this has to have a termination date. The fate and consequences of the Afghan children in Pakistan camps are too well known to be recounted. The world does not need another group of hostile extremist elements finding their way into the dark space of indoctrination and dogmas. Finding an amicable solution to this crisis has to be a core agenda for all those that can make a difference.

The agreements that Myanmar has signed with Bangladesh over the repatriation of the Rohingya has not been honoured as yet. Post the repatriation agreement in August this year, Bangladesh government had sent a list of more than 22,000 from which 3,540 refugees have been cleared for return by Myanmar, but there is no progress on that front as yet. The international community, especially the ASEAN, has taken a deeper interest in the crisis. Their ability to influence Myanmar to move towards resolution of this humanitarian crises is higher than most and while the economic sanctions imposed by many of the western economies post the 2017 crises have conveyed a message strongly, but there has to be serious attempts by them to encourage and make the Myanmar Government to do right for the hapless Rohingyas needs to be underscored by every stakeholder in the region and outside. China, a close partner of Bangladesh and Myanmar, has a critical role in resolving this issue. This crises will have far reaching consequences and can be ignored only at our own peril.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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