In 2017, over 700,000 Rohingya, including almost half a million children, fled their homes in Myanmar to Bangladesh, leaving everything behind, in a bid to escape horrific violence and human rights abuses in Rakhine state. August 25 will mark their third year of forced exile from their home country, Myanmar.
Many milestones can be crossed in three years. Since 2017, more than 75,000 babies have been born in the camps of Cox’s Bazar. These children will have taken their first steps on ground that they cannot call their own and spoken their first words in a country in which their language is alien. All they have learned about Myanmar – their home – will be second-hand, from the stories told to them by their parents. For these children, the sprawling camps of Cox’s Bazar are the only life they have ever known.
But this is only half the story. On the other side of the border too, in Myanmar, over 30,000 children (mostly Rohingya and some Kaman) have been born across 21 camps since 2012, when these communities were internally displaced by conflict and abuse. Some of these camps are now scheduled to be closed, but without offering the displaced communities a meaningful say regarding their future or addressing the root causes that brought about this crisis: discrimination and the systemic exclusion of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
The conditions in which more than 100,000 children now live are a symptom of our collective failure as an international community to protect these children and guarantee their futures in a place they can finally call home. For Rohingya children to return home, the root causes of their displacement must be addressed. Myanmar should act immediately to address the discrimination, violence, and abuse that Rohingya face in Rakhine state and ensure they have equal access to rights including citizenship, freedom of movement, and access to essential services. The international community too must continue to fund the humanitarian efforts in Cox’s Bazar and Rakhine state. It is futile to talk about a positive future for Rohingya children if they are not provided access to education, including up to university level, health care, and other tools necessary that will allow them to look after their wellbeing. For any solution to this crisis to be sustainable, we must move to look after Rohingya children’s futures, by looking after their present.
Another part of that solution is delivering justice for the crimes inflicted upon the Rohingya. On this subject, the United Nations Security Council’s shameful inaction has allowed perpetrators of human rights abuses and grave violations against Rohingya children to walk free for the last three years. When we speak to Rohingya children, they tell us they want to go home, they want to go to school, see their friends, family and most of all find safety for themselves and their loved ones. We teach our children to dream big, but for a child who knows nothing but camp life, many of their hopes and dreams will seem out of reach. Without accountability for those responsible, Rohingya children’s dreams will remain just that — a dream.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated more than ever that we need to find a solution now because Rohingya children cannot wait forever. In both Cox’s Bazar and Rakhine state, lockdowns designed to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 have had the knock-on effects of deteriorating conditions and affecting the delivery of essential life-saving services. In Rakhine state, the situation is further aggravated by a vicious armed conflict that exacts a heavy toll on children and their families, with no end in sight.
Save the Children is working on both sides of the border to protect children and their families from the impacts of violence and this pandemic, including running a dedicated COVID-19 treatment center in Cox’s Bazar. Our teams have witnessed first-hand the new challenges children are facing as a result of these shutdowns. With learning centers in camps in both Bangladesh and Myanmar temporarily closed, and the closure of girl-friendly and child-friendly spaces, Rohingya children across both countries are at increased risk of violence, abuse, and child trafficking. Without these safe spaces, they have also lost important access to mental health and other support services – left to face an unprecedented global crisis, stuck in camps, and without any of the support many have come to rely on over the years.
We will have failed Rohingya children yet again if in a year’s time we are back here marking the fourth anniversary of their exile. The current status quo is not acceptable nor sustainable. World leaders – particularly those with close ties to Myanmar – must do everything they can to encourage a swift resolution to this crisis. We can’t allow the years to pile up and for the children to spend their entire childhoods in confinement.
We must continue to raise our voices to advocate for Rohingya children’s rights. It is our commitment to continue doing so until it is no longer needed. And, it will be needed until the international community — including the UNSC and ASEAN — take decisive action and fulfill their responsibilities to protect the world’s most vulnerable children and ensure no one is left behind.
Onno Van Manen is Save the Children’s country director in Bangladesh.