Ask any one of the 18,000 Rohingya youth at two government-run refugee camps in Bangladesh what they want most, the answer is unequivocally the same: education.
“Our future is blind without education,” said Sayed Alam, a lifelong resident of Kutupalong camp, one of two official camps set up to house 28,000 documented Rohingya refugees, 300km southeast of the capital Dhaka.
“Without a proper education I’m nothing,” the 17-year-old said.
Apart from primary education classes, members of this Muslim and linguistic minority who fled Myanmar en masse starting in 1991, have little hope of going any further.
Under Article 22 of the International Refugee Convention, contracting states shall accord to refugees treatment as favourable as possible with respect to education other than elementary education. Bangladesh is not a signatory.
The Bangladesh government does not permit secondary schools in the camps so boys like Sayed have no choice but to study on their own at home - if at all.
Officially barred from leaving the camps, formalized education essentially comes to a halt for Rohingya youth around the age of 12, presenting a major dilemma for those struggling to assist them.
“Without this community receiving education and opportunity, it’s a generation lost,” Arjun Jain, a senior protection officer at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Dhaka, told IRIN.
UNHCR believes life skills for self-reliance - education, vocational and income-generating skills, as well as civic awareness - are an integral part of any long-term solution for the Rohingya, one of the most protracted refugee situations in the world today.
According to a joint UN assessment of the camp in June, education for the Rohingya remains a key concern.
Over 70 percent of heads of households in the two camps (the other is at Nayapara, further south) have no formal education, while only 18 percent received any primary education, a 2009 Action Against Hunger (ACF) survey cited in the report revealed.
Just 3 percent had attended any secondary education (six or more years of education as opposed to five for primary), the assessment found.
Primary school was first informally allowed in the camps in 1999, but it was not until 2008 that it was formalized.
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
|After primary school, many children try to educate themselves alone|
With support from the UN Children’s Fund and NGO Training and Management International (TAI), some 21 primary schools now operate in the camps, including 11 in Kutupalong and 10 at Nayapara, employing more than 150 teachers, half of whom are also refugees.
Of the more than 9,000 students currently enrolled, close to half are girls, with attendance running at around 80 percent.
But despite these successes, advocating anything beyond primary school in the camps remains problematic.
The UN joint assessment “strongly supported continued advocacy for access to higher grades to be made available”. However, implementing such a recommendation creates a dilemma.
Surrounding communities also poor
Anti-Rohingya sentiment within surrounding communities, many of which lack basic services as well, is already high, so providing assistance to those inside the camp without taking on board the needs outside would be a mistake, aid workers warn.
Around Cox’s Bazar District, one of the poorest regions of the country, where the two camps are located, many Bangladeshi families also face difficulty in terms of health and education services, Chris Lewa, an expert on Rohingya issues with the Arakan Project, said.
“There is so much need for the population around the refugee camps, who are slightly better off, but there is very little difference,” Lewa said.
At the same time, Bangladeshi authorities insist any further assistance to the Rohingya - documented or otherwise - would also serve as a magnet for Rohgingya across the border; and the authorities are ill-prepared to address any new influx from Myanmar on their own.
Since mid 1992, UNHCR has not been permitted to register newly arriving Rohingya.
According to a report earlier this year by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), more than 200,000 undocumented Rohingya struggle to survive - unrecognized and largely unassisted in surrounding towns and villages in the area. Nearly 30,000 live along the periphery of Kutupalong camp.
If additional interventions are to be successful, the needs of undocumented Rohingya as well as those of the surrounding Bangladeshi communities, must also be taken into consideration, aid workers say.
“What we would like to see is all marginalized communities have access to better education,” Jain said, adding: “We are going to have a generation of people who are not properly educated and not fully skilled. This is one reason we also would like to see refugee students allowed to attend secondary schools outside the camps.”
To date, the UNHCR has already pumped some US$250,000 into schools outside the camps, and funded various healthcare projects.