Mohammed is one of more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled into Bangladesh after the Myanmar army launched a vicious “clearance operation” in August 2017. Soldiers raped, killed, and torched their way through Rakhine state, home to the vast majority of Rohingya, committing what the UN and many others have called crimes against humanity and possibly even genocide.
But while Mohammed witnessed unimaginable violence and destruction before fleeing across the border, he is also keenly aware of other threats to his community’s future – not least a lack of access to education. Before fleeing into Bangladesh, Mohammed’s opportunities to attend school had become increasingly limited in Myanmar, as authorities started segregating Muslim and Buddhist children following violence in 2012. In the relative safety of Bangladesh, meanwhile, Mohammed has become one of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya children who are being denied formal schooling opportunities, to a large extent because of restrictions imposed by the Bangladeshi government.
The lack of access to education for Rohingya on both sides of the Naf – the river separating Myanmar and Bangladesh – is threatening to create a lost generation of Rohingya children. This month, the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK launched a new report spotlighting this hidden crisis, while calling on the world to take action as soon as possible. As Mohammad himself told us: “If you want to harm a community you don’t need to kill them. Just don’t let them study.”
Inside Myanmar, Rohingya have faced a debilitating and state-sponsored system of discrimination for decades. This has included denying Rohingya citizenship and the rights associated with it, as well as imposing serious restrictions on their freedom of movement. Across large parts of Rakhine state, Rohingya need to obtain permission to travel to towns or even to leave their villages, meaning that access to opportunities to make a living or gain an education are scarce.
These restrictions are not new, but have been part of the daily reality for Rohingya for generations. They form the more subtle part of the genocide the Myanmar authorities are subjecting Rohingya too. But the discrimination in Rakhine State serves the same purpose as the military’s violence that grabbed international headlines in 2017 – to make life for Rohingya so unbearable that we see no option but to leave. I myself, for example, felt compelled to flee Rakhine state in the mid-1990s when the Myanmar government prevented me from attending university simply because I was Rohingya.
This system of segregation, however, has tightened significantly since 2012, when state-sponsored violence overwhelmingly targeting Rohingya swept Rakhine state. Since then, authorities started segregating previously mixed Buddhist-Muslim schools, leaving many Rohingya in separate education facilities where the quality of teaching and materials are extremely poor. Many government teachers refuse to work in Rohingya schools; those that do agree often subject students to humiliation and neglect. Mohammad himself describes how his own situation changed from 2012: “After that, the teacher kept us in separate classes. One for Rohingya, one for Rakhine. They gave them all the attention – all the resources. The teacher would call us ‘Kalar’ [a pejorative term for Rohingya] and would no longer want to teach us.”
There are also reports that since 2017, Myanmar authorities have been targeting teachers and other educated Rohingya — further aggravating the collective capacity for education. It is no coincidence that more than 73 percent of Rohingya in Rakhine state self-identify as illiterate today.
But even in the relative safety of Bangladesh, the lack of access to education has continued. While the Bangladeshi government generously opened its borders to Myanmar at the height of the crisis, the same authorities have since imposed worrying restrictions inside the refugee camps that house hundreds of thousands of Rohingya. Refugees are, for example, largely prohibited from leaving the camps, while international aid groups have been barred from building more sustainable shelters in order to not imply a sense of permanency.
These restrictions also apply to education. Rohingya refugee children are not allowed to attend formal education or to be taught in Bangla languages, apparently because the authorities in Dhaka fear these could become “pull factors,” convincing more refugees to enter Bangladesh and settle there permanently. Instead, education in the camps is being provided by a range of international and Bangladeshi NGOs as well as community-based organizations. Rohingya are often taught in informal “temporary learning centers” where the quality of education and curriculum can vary significantly depending on the NGO involved.
As grateful as the Rohingya community is toward Dhaka for hosting close to a million refugees, we also urge the government to rethink its approach to education. Rohingya refugees will remain in Bangladesh for the foreseeable future – the only way they will be able to constructively give back to Bangladeshi society is if they are allowed to better themselves through education and access to livelihoods. We call on the Bangladeshi authorities to immediately remove all barriers to education for refugees, and to ensure that Rohingya community leaders are involved in decision making around aid and development.
The only long-term and viable solution to the crisis, however, lies inside Myanmar. The Myanmar authorities must immediately dismantle the system of apartheid, remove all restrictions on the human rights of Rohingya (including on access to education and freedom of movement), and grant Rohingya citizenship under national law.
With the Rohingya community’s very existence threatened by the ongoing genocide in Myanmar, the stakes could not be higher. There is a real risk that a whole generation of Rohingya children will grow up without ever having had access to adequate schooling. This is all the more troubling since we need a generation of educated Rohingya, who can lead and better our community, now more than ever.
Tun Khin is President of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK and Coordinator of the Free Rohingya Coalition.