This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Myanmar army’s attack on the Rohingya population. Following the outbreak of violence and subsequent massacre, thousands of families fled to Bangladesh and settled in the Cox Bazar refugee camp. Ironically, the camp owes its name to a city located less than two hours away, a tourist destination famous for its beaches and tall buildings. A very different reality from the Cox Bazar camp, the largest refugee camp in the world, where thousands of people have lived in tents for years. As head of the mission of the NGO Educo in Cox Bazar, I have seen first-hand the difficulties that Rohingya refugees face, especially children and adolescents. We are talking about the biggest humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh. The COVID-19 pandemic and several fires in the camps have only caused more pain to one of the most vulnerable communities on the planet. At the beginning of the month, thousands of Rohingya refugees from the camp lost their makeshift shelters as a result of heavy flooding in the region. These monsoon floods, and the destruction and death caused, exacerbate the suffering of these families.
If I have learned anything over the years that I have worked on humanitarian response plans in the field, it is that unfortunately, in an emergency situation, especially during disasters or humanitarian crises, the welfare of children and education and their protection is not among the first priority issues addressed. They are often not perceived as urgent and critical interventions. Too often we forget about the needs of children, especially with the type of relief supplies, first aid services and projects that we provide to families. For example, when equipment repair work is carried out after a disaster, schools are often the last to be rehabilitated. Another example, in this case related to protection; Children are often left alone in their tents when parents go to collect supplies from humanitarian agencies. We know that the families who have arrived in the camps are now facing a pandemic and a long list of threats, such as abuse, exploitation and even human trafficking. We have to be aware that half of the refugees in the camp are minors, and that they face many barriers. Social norms and camp regulations limit children’s access to education, especially girls.
Education and child protection are two inseparable concepts. Protecting children and adolescents requires educating them, informing them and giving them skills that they can use to face risks. When they have access to education, when they are in schools, or when they participate in a structured learning program, we are educating them from the root and protecting against present and future threats. So even during the pandemic, we have to ensure that they have learning opportunities. Child protection and education go hand in hand because we know that schools are a safe space, in an insecure context. Education provides security in an uncertain context.
Since the arrival of these families to the Cox Bazar refugee camp, Educo’s strategy has been to ensure that girls and adolescents are protected and have access to education, and that their families and themselves receive knowledge about the risks of abuse and exploitation, including the dangers of child marriage, and the various risks of trafficking and physical and sexual abuse.
What Rohingya children really need is hope and inspiration through education and protection programs that ensure their safety. We must ask all stakeholders to redouble their efforts so that the education of refugee children and adolescents does not come to a standstill, despite the pandemic and other obstacles. After all, child protection and education are life-saving interventions that have a lasting impact on refugee children amid a seemingly uncertain future.
Educo and the other NGOs that provide humanitarian aid in the Cox Bazar camp have come a long way despite the obstacles to implementing a response that has a real impact on the lives of these children. Our most significant contribution is the financing and development of a program against gender violence and the guarantee of access to education for girls. Through our program, children, their families and the community are more aware of the risks that women and girls face and have information on how to help prevent them. Children and communities are more proactive, and they themselves are the first to alert and take action if they believe they detect a possible risk of child marriage or any type of abuse.
At the height of lockdown, we provide essential relief supplies and much-needed instructional materials to help children and their families cope. The children and adolescents who participate in our programs became leaders in their community and helped us spread good practices to stop the pandemic, such as the use of masks and hand washing.
In March, when a massive fire destroyed hundreds of homes and many of the camp’s schools, Educo provided essential supplies and demonstrated that it was on the side of the community, consistently and unconditionally. However, on the fifth anniversary of the Rohingya massacre, and when we take stock of all the road traveled, it is urgent to affirm that the international community can do more, especially if it focuses on the well-being of children.