The plight of the marginalised Rohingya people of Myanmar has sporadically hit the headlines over recent years but the desperation of their situation is still not widely known. It is estimated that up to half a million undocumented Myanmar nationals have crossed the shared border into Bangladesh. I recently had the opportunity to visit and witness how Unicef is supporting the children and families who have arrived in Chittagong, in the south of the country.
Some 33,000 Rohingya people have been registered in Bangladesh and live in official refugee camps but many more are not registered at all and live in in makeshift settlements adjacent to the camps or in host communities. Provision of water and sanitation is poor and child malnutrition rates in the affected districts are at 12.5%, amongst the highest in Bangladesh. Access to education among the host communities is also below national average, with more than 1 in 4 primary age children out of school and education for unregistered arrivals from Myanmar has until recently been non-existent.
My Unicef colleagues in Bangladesh are working around the clock to respond to the needs of children and their families, but ongoing and fresh challenges are making their task more difficult. While meeting with our staff, I learned that an influx of approximately 74,000 people (60% women and children) in early 2017 resulted in rapid growth of existing and new makeshift camps in the Cox's Bazar district of South Eastern Chittagong. Unicef mounted a rapid response to provide the essential nutrition support, child protection services and early education activities which the children urgently need. Now there are 140 learning centres benefitting more than 10,000 children, with plans to reach 20,000 children by the end of 2017, and 3 child friendly spaces servicing more than 8,500 children. I visited the Shamlapur settlement in Teknaf to see the vital work that Unicef funds for children's development in their early years.
The local communities, themselves poor, have welcomed Unicef's interventions and made space available for the construction of what we call 'Child Friendly Spaces', where children have a chance to learn and play and be children when they otherwise might not. In a short space of time, the facilities have found their place at the heart of these makeshift settlements and have provided access to education for some Rohingya families for the very first time - something that was denied to some of them in Myanmar due to the marginalisation of their community status.
Abdullah, a father of seven children described how his family had left Myanmar because of the constant threat of violence and told me that "our lives had no value there". A statement borne out by reported claims of torture and exploitation by some Rohingyas. He was happy that his children could now be educated and looked on proudly as his two teenage girls told of their aspiration to become teachers. The Rohingya and local people seem to be reasonably integrated in Shamlapur, with the men and boys gaining work with local fishermen in their distinctive sickle-shaped sea boats. More recent sudden influxes have resulted in fragile encampments in Kutupalong and Balukhai with little resilience to weather conditions, as demonstrated when Cyclone Mora demolished many recently constructed dwellings in late May.
It was clear to me from my time in the country that the Rohingya are a resilient and stoic people, who have left their homes in Myanmar under duress and are living in very fragile subsistence circumstances amongst an already poor Bangladeshi community. Unicef's efforts in providing nutrition support, child protection and education are vital to protect the lives and rights of children, especially the youngest and most vulnerable. Early marriage is a risk to girls, as poor living conditions make families anxious to secure their daughters' futures, whilst both boys and girls are often engaged in child labour, with the boys working with adults on the fishing boats to provide much needed economic support to families living on the breadline. The situation is precarious and Unicef's immediate funding requirement of $2m is so far 59% unmet. Without greater support now and going forward, I fear that Abdullah, his children and the many other Rohingya families seeking refuge in Bangladesh will face further insecurity and uncertainty for their futures. Alternatively, if the education work Unicef has initiated can be sustained and developed, his girls and others may be able to realise their ambitions and in turn help other children meet their full potential.