December 01, 2017

100 days of horror and misery for the Rohingya refugee children

Rohingya children struggle with new life in refugee camps

Photo credit: UNHCR

Billy Briggs

Education in emergencies writer

August 25 saw the start of the crisis when huge numbers fled across the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh - more than half of them children.

December 3 marks 100 days since the Rohingya refugee crisis started. 

State violence resulted in more than 600,000 people fleeing Myanmar for Bangladesh, where they face an uncertain future in refugee camps. 

Around 60% of those fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar have been children, with international organisations asking for urgent help to get them into education. 

For many Rohingya children, school will be a new experience because most have been denied an education in Myanmar.

Here we look at how the refugee crisis unfolded over those 100 days.

Who are the Rohingya?

They are an ethnic group, most of them Muslim, who have lived for centuries in the majority Buddhist Myanmar. There are about 1.1 million Rohingya in the Southeast Asian country and they are often described as the world's most persecuted minority. 

The Rohingya speak Rohingya or Ruaingga, a dialect distinct to others spoken in Rakhine State and throughout Myanmar. 

They are not considered one of the country's 135 official ethnic groups and have been denied citizenship since 1982. This has effectively rendered them stateless.

Nearly all of the Rohingya in Myanmar live in the western coastal state of Rakhine. It is one the poorest states in the country with ghetto-like camps and a lack of basic services. They are not allowed to leave without government permission. 

Rohingya mother Laila and her daughter wait in line to receive emergency relief packs at Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh. Two of her other children remained in Myanmar

Photo credit: UNHCR

Past persecution

The British ruled Myanmar (then Burma) for over a century, beginning with a series of wars in 1824. In 1948, when Myanmar achieved independence from the British, violent conflicts broke out among various segments of its more than 100 ethnic and racial groups.

When the army seized power in Burma 1962, it introduced discriminatory laws. The Buddhist majority said Rohingyas were unwanted intruders. 

The Rohingya were full citizens of Burma until 1982 when a new law by the military government took away their citizenship on the false accusation that they arrived in the country after the 1823 British occupation of Rakhine State. 

But, as Human Rights Watch notes, their presence actually dates back to the 12th century.

Today in Myanmar they are not allowed to marry or have more than two children without government permission.

Why are they so poorly educated?

The illiteracy rate among the Rohingya is a staggering 80%. For many children, getting some form of education in the refugee camps will be a new experience as around 60% of Rohingya have never been to school.

Being stateless means not being recognised as a national by any country. It means life without an official identity and can result in generations of discrimination, extreme poverty and little or no education.

More than 600,000 Rohingya sought safety in Bangladesh between late August and November 2017

Photo credit: UNHCR

August 25, 2017

Myanmar's state media reported that 12 security officers were killed by ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) insurgents during a series of coordinated attacks targeting at least 20 police outposts and an army base in Rakhine State. 

The military responded with what they describe as "clearance operations," burning down villages and triggering a mass exodus of Rohingya to Bangladesh.

September 11

Save the Children called on the international community to fully fund a $77 million emergency appeal to help newly-arrived Rohingya in southern Bangladesh.

Save the Children humanitarian expert George Graham said: “In and around Cox’s Bazar, a Bangladeshi district near the Myanmar border, thousands of Rohingya families including children are sleeping out in the open or by a roadside because they don’t have anywhere else to go. 

"Some don’t have enough food or clean drinking water and this state of uncertainty increases the risk of children being exploited, abused or even trafficked.

“There are also hundreds of children who are unaccompanied or separated, having lost touch with their families in the chaos of fleeing their homes. This is a big concern. 

"These children need extra support and help being reunited with family members.”

These children have been through a terrible experience. They are heavily traumatised.

Fatema Khyrunnahar, UNICEF child protection officer

September 19

In a televised speech, Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi condemned any human rights violations but was widely criticised for failing to acknowledge the alleged atrocities by the military. 

Myanmar's military repeatedly denied conducting atrocities, saying it was targeting terrorists. 

But stories of violence against women and children - villages burned, infants thrown in rivers, toddlers and mothers shot - abounded from makeshift camps in neighbouring Bangladesh, where survivors were struggling to find clean water, food and proper shelter.

Hundreds of children at the camps had been separated from their families and the numbers were growing daily. 

“These children have been through a terrible experience. They are heavily traumatised,” said Fatema Khyrunnahar, a child protection officer with UNICEF, which was working to set up child-friendly spaces in the camps.

October 4

Humanitarian organisations helping refugees said they needed $434 million over the next six months to help up to 1.2 million people, many of them children, who require lifesaving help.

“We are particularly worried about the fate of Rohingya women and children subject to serious violations of their human rights, including killings, rape and forced displacement,” said the UN committees on the elimination of discrimination against women and on the rights of the child.

Pupils at Seagull Primary School in Kutupalong refugee camp, south-east Bangladesh, receive learning materials. Many of these children were born in the camp.

Photo credit: UNHCR

October 17

More than 600,000 Rohingya refugees had arrived in Bangladesh after fleeing violence since August 25. 

With the UN estimating that half of the refugee population were children below the age of 17, Mercy Malaysia said there was rising concern about the long-term effect of their sudden exodus.

“We are in the process of creating child-friendly spaces for this particularly vulnerable group,” said Dr Ahmad Faizal Mohd Perdaus, President of Mercy Malaysia.

November 12

A UNICEF report said that since August 25 a total of 88,703 children under five had been screened for malnutrition. Out of 4405 children identified with severe acute malnutrition, 3596 had received treatment in the last week. 

“Moreover, children, adolescents and women in both the Rohingya and host communities are exposed to high levels of violence, abuse and exploitation including sexual harassment, child labour and child marriage and are at high risk of being trafficked," said UNICEF. 

"An estimated 450,000 total Rohingya children aged four to 18 years old are in need of education services."

November 27

A situation report by the Bangladesh-based charity BRAC said: "For children, being out of school increases the risk child marriage, abuse, sexual exploitation, trafficking and child labour. There are high malnutrition rates among these children. 

"Humanitarian actors are expanding operations in education, nutrition, gender-based support and community mobilisation through volunteer network at the camps and makeshift settlements."

Rohingya refugees cross the Naf River from Myanmar on makeshift rafts, heading for refugee camps in Teknaf, Bangladesh

Photo credit: UNHCR

November 29

Pope Francis delivered a keynote speech in Myanmar, demanding "respect for each ethnic group" but without referring specifically to its Muslim Rohingya community.

It was reported that young Rohingya girls who fled Myanmar are being forced to marry when they reach Bangladesh simply to secure more food for themselves and their families. 

With UN World Food Programme rations allocated by household, families are marrying off girls as young as 12 to reduce the number of mouths to feed and create new households with food quotas of their own, according to The Guardian.

November 30

The new EU ambassador to Myanmar said it must guarantee "equal rights" for everyone in Rakhine state. Kristian Schmidt spoke as talks were ongoing about the repatriation of more than 620,000 Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh.

Schmidt said Myanmar must address the "root causes" of the Rakhine crisis, such as decades-long discrimination against the Rohingya population that included restrictions on movement and lack of access to proper education.

He said confining the Rohingya to villages reduced education opportunities and could have radicalised some people.

Schmidt added: "There has to be a credible, independent investigation of the events that led 620,000 people to flee to quite horrible conditions on the other side of the border. We need to know."

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