Each day, 11 year old Sayedul Amin helps dress his three younger brothers ready for school. But he does not join them. Sayedul goes to the nearby market to buy rice, which he and his mother sell outside their family shack in the Kutupalong refugee camp. The camp lies near the Bangladesh border with Myanmar (formerly Burma) and is home Rohingya refugees, a Muslim ethnic minority who are persecuted by the military junta ruling Myanmar. In 1991, a large number crossed the border into Bangladesh and Thailand to flee persecution. Some estimates put the number of Rohingya in Bangladesh as high as 200,000, living either in the camps or around towns and villages in the area.
The camp at Kutupalong is home to nearly 30,000 of these refugees. For many of the young in Kutupalong, the camp is the only home they’ve known. Earlier this year, when working in the region to help victims of Cyclone Aila, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported that conditions there were extremely poor. Many families were struggling to survive in poorly constructed shelters and with food and medicine in short supply. MSF was also concerned about local intimidation of the refugees and the lack of schooling for thousands of children.
Primary school classes are provided for young Rohingya children in 21 schools operated by the UN Children’s Fund alongside other non-governmental organizations. These schools offer a primary education for around 9,000 children. But after 12 years of age, Rohingya children must study at home, many after working each day to help feed their families.
Article 22 of the International Refugee Convention states that refugees should receive favorable treatment and have access to education. Bangladesh is not a signatory to the Convention. The government allowed the setting up of primary schools in 2008, but is concerned if further services are provided, this will act as an incentive for more Rohingya families to cross the border. Anti-Rohingya sentiment in surrounding communities is already high, because the area is one of the poorest regions of Bangladesh. Here most local Bangladeshi families struggle to send their children to school or access health care.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has invested 250 000 dollars into community schools and funded various healthcare projects in the region. The agency believes that further investment must go hand in hand with official recognition of the refugees’ needs and the requirement for secondary schools. One senior protection officer with the UNHCR in Dhaka, said that without receiving a proper education, the young are a “generation lost”. As one 17 year-old and lifelong resident of the Kutupalong camp put it, “without a proper education I’m nothing”.