A life with dignity for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

Chris Simoens
21 October 2019
For the last two years, more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees have been living in camps in Bangladesh without any prospect of returning home. UNICEF and its partners are trying to keep the situation bearable.

In August 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority from Myanmar, fled appalling violence and persecution in their home country and made their way to poverty-stricken Bangladesh. Most of them ended up in overcrowded refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar district, where they have to make do with small huts made of bamboo and sailcloth. Two years have passed and the Rohingya still do not have any prospect of returning home.

It has taken enormous efforts from the international community to make life in the camps somewhat bearable. UNICEF and its partners, for instance, have provided basic services in the areas of health care, nutrition, safe water, sanitation and hygiene to more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees.

Large-scale vaccination ensured that there was no outbreak of cholera, among other things, and famine was averted.

A health worker holds a tube with a cholera vaccine in his hand and explains to a child what it is for.
© UNICEF/UN0208863/Sokol

Malnutrition among children

Large-scale vaccination ensured that there was no outbreak of cholera, among other things, and famine was averted. UNICEF also set up camp health centres to offer routine medical services for pregnant women and babies around the clock, while various tap-stands provide access to chlorinated water.

UNICEF paid particular attention to detecting acute malnutrition in young children. In children younger than five, malnutrition leads to serious growth retardation, which becomes a handicap for the rest of their lives. As part of these efforts, 1,000 skilled community volunteers were deployed to check for malnutrition. In 2019, these volunteers screened an average of 135,000 children per month. Malnourished children are fed Plumpy’Nut, a nutritious peanut-based paste, while pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers are taught how to prepare healthy meals for their children.


Education offers a future

The situation in the camps might have become bearable, but that is as far as it goes. Residents cannot grow their own vegetables and only have very few opportunities to earn money, which keeps them dependent on food aid and handouts of basic materials. On top of that, there is always a risk that their makeshift houses are destroyed by cyclones or monsoons. Finally, violence and human trafficking are a daily reality in the camps.

Not exactly a charmed existence, and one that is taking its toll on the many children and young people who make up more than half of the Rohingya refugees. Young people are often desperate and depressed, as there is no end in sight to the hopelessness. Decent education is crucial in this respect. 'Education takes people out of the darkness and into the light', as teacher Rozina Aktar puts it.

UNICEF and its partners have ensured access to quality education for more than 192,000 Rohingya children aged 4 to 14.

Teacher Rozina Aktar holds a notebook in her hand while a boy watches.
© UNICEF/UN0326955/Brown

UNICEF and its partners have ensured access to quality education for more than 192,000 Rohingya children aged 4 to 14, by training teachers, providing teaching materials and setting up more than 2,000 learning centres. A further 640 learning centres are needed to accommodate an additional 25,000 children. 


Youth centres

The most problematic situation is that of children aged 15 to 18, of whom no less than 97 percent are not receiving any form of education. This is alarming: these children have little to occupy them, and boredom can lead to frustration and problems. Without education, they easily fall prey to exploitation and abuse.

To date, UNICEF has set up 100 youth clubs, in addition to 21 youth centres where adolescents can go for psychosocial support. They can also take classes in basic skills such as literacy, numeracy and writing, and can gain life and vocational skills that prepare them for a job.

It is a good start, although education for girls is still lagging behind. When girls reach puberty, they are often taken out of school by their families. Unicef is now trying out lessons in shifts, whereby boys and girls take classes at different times.


Safety for girls and women

There has also been a focus on the safety of girls and women. Despite investments in street lighting, this was inadequate and it was still dangerous for them to go to the toilet at night. In response, UNICEF and its partners set up a series of 'static and mobile safe spaces' for women and girls, as well as awareness-raising campaigns. In addition, staff in the camps are trained to take care of women who have been the victims of violence.

Ensuring that the situation remains bearable does not, of course, solve the refugee crisis. Ultimately, a solution to this crisis can only be achieved if the Rohingya’s homeland, Myanmar, allows them to live in peace and harmony with their neighbours as full members of society. As long as this is not the case, sustained efforts by the international community will remain crucial.

Read the full report: Beyond survival: Rohingya Refugee Children in Bangladesh want to learn


UNICEF is a partner of the Belgian Development Cooperation.

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About the same theme - Article 5 /45 Refugee education in crisis