Bangladesh: Closing Rohingya Schools and Shops is Cruel

“Bangladesh’s decision to close schools for Rohingya refugee children violates the right to education on a massive scale,” said Bill Van Esveld, associate children’s rights director at HRW. “This cruel decision should be immediately reversed so that Rohingya children can get an education, which will be especially critical for their return to Myanmar when it is safe to do so.” (photo: UNICEF/Lateef - 24 August 2020).

Bangladesh hosts over 1.1 million Rohingyas who fled neighboring Myanmar during a genocidal campaign by the security forces in 2017. Most of them live in and around Kutupalong and Nayapara refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar region - which have grown to become the largest and most densely populated camps in the world.

Conditions in the camps are challenging and local infrastructure and services have been stretched to their limits. The United Nations has described the Rohingya as “the most persecuted minority in the world.”

The Government of Bangladesh has been praised by the international community for taking in the refugees. On December 19, 2021, Tom Andrews, Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, at the end of his first official visit to the Bangladesh said, “Bangladesh saved untold numbers of lives when it opened its arms and hearts to Rohingya people who survived these most unspeakable of horrors inflicted on them by the Myanmar military.”

“All who value human rights owe Bangladesh a debt of gratitude”, he added. He acknowledged that the responsibility to resolve the emergency rests upon Myanmar.

Many Bangladeshi expats living in the west who had often felt proud of what Sheikh Hasina and her government have done now feel embarrassed by the latest activities of certain government agencies that are simply callous and inexcusable. Consider for instance the activities of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC), which is a Bangladesh government official responsible for education policy in the refugee camps where about 400,000 school-age children are confined.

On December 13, 2021, the RRRC decided to close down all the community-based and home-based schools within the Rohingya refugee camps. How stupid!

The government’s 19-point decision, effective immediately, states that “home-based learning center[s] will be closed.” At these centers, set up in people’s shelters, humanitarian groups, supported by international donor-funding, provide non-formal lessons that have been approved by the Bangladesh government. According to humanitarian groups, roughly 22,000 Rohingya children are currently enrolled in the home-based centers. According to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, another 92,000 students attend approved non-formal lessons at small, one-story bamboo “learning centers” outside people’s homes, which teach three daily shifts of just two hours per shift.

The decision also orders that “all private learning center[s] must be shut down,” referring to community-led schools established by Rohingya refugee volunteer-teachers. These schools have enrolled about 10,000 children and teach the formal Myanmar curriculum, but are not officially approved. These schools have not received any support from humanitarian donors and charge minimal if any fees to cover basic learning materials. Bangladesh camp authorities had closed one of these unauthorized schools, with more than 400 students, on October 14. But the community-led schools are the basis of a plan, which the Bangladesh government supports, to allow Rohingya to study the formal Myanmar curriculum.

Humanitarian workers have long maintained that the home-based schools are “essential” to access learning and psychosocial support, and that approximately 84 percent of the students are girls. They said the community-led schools are especially crucial for adolescents, who are too old to attend the officially approved lessons at the learning centers and have few other education options. Together, these schools had provided the only education accessible to Rohingya children during the 18 months when the authorities had closed learning centers as part of restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic, until the government partially lifted the closure on September 22.

Education staff at humanitarian groups said that officially approved learning centers could not accommodate the students forced to drop out of the home-based and community schools set to be closed. “The impact could be huge, and this decision might not leave any way for these students to integrate into Myanmar society if they are able to return,” one aid worker said.

Bangladesh authorities closed at least two community-led Rohingya schools with hundreds of students on December 13. In one camp, the assistant camp-in-charge – a Bangladesh official – and police officers arrived and closed a school with 800 students and seized all the furniture and education materials “without asking a single question,” a teacher said. The authorities also seized a teacher’s UN-issued identity document, which they have yet to return.

A 30-year-old Rohingya teacher, who runs a community school with 60 students in Cox's Bazar refugee camp, said, “I used to teach primary education in the Myanmar language in my school but I don't know why the Bangladesh government took such a decision. If our children are not educated, then their prospects will not improve.” He has been running his school for the last year without payment from any organization.

Several educational institutions have already been shut down following calls by the Bangladesh government — a move the New York-based rights organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW), has labeled a massive violation of the right to education.

“Bangladesh’s decision to close schools for Rohingya refugee children violates the right to education on a massive scale,” said Bill Van Esveld, associate children’s rights director at HRW. “This cruel decision should be immediately reversed so that Rohingya children can get an education, which will be especially critical for their return to Myanmar when it is safe to do so.”

As part of a policy to prevent refugees from integrating in the country, Bangladesh authorities have already barred Rohingya children’s access to public and private schools. They also severely restricted the education programs that humanitarian groups could provide inside the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, near the Myanmar border. Now the alternative schools inside the camps are at risk.

In a press release, Burma Task Force, which has had campaigned very hard inside the USA for the Rohingya cause and their dignified repatriation, said, “It is deeply disappointing that a people who survived genocide would treat another group of genocide survivors in this cold and cruel way, targeting children.” 

Something for Bangladesh to ponder hard about!

Rights groups have long complained that Bangladesh has a history of eschewing steps that would make refugee camp conditions truly hospitable, thereby increasing pressure on refugees to return to dangerous conditions in Myanmar, or, to relocate to Bhasan Char, a flood-prone island some 68 km from the mainland. The authorities, for example, have refused to allow refugees in the Cox’s Bazar camps to build permanent structures that would protect against mudslides and flooding during monsoon season. According to the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG), during the 2020 monsoon season there were more than 600 landslides and over 30 floods in the camps, affecting more than 118,000 refugees. Among those, over 8,700 refugees were displaced and over 24,000 shelters were partially or completely destroyed.

I am saddened to say that Bangladesh government’s policies vis-a-vis the Rohingya refugees are very poorly thought out and are only undermining its standing internationally. Succinctly put, Bangladesh has been a very reluctant host.

Also consider the recent bulldozing of over 3,000 Rohingya shops, calling them “illegal”.

These latest demolitions came within days of a massive fire that broke out in Refugee camp 20 in Cox's Bazar. A major fire at the world’s largest refugee camp last March killed at least 15 members of the community and burned to ashes more than 10,000 shanties, including a Turkish field hospital.

Rohingya refugees said that they had lost their sources of income and daily necessities in Cox’s Bazar.

Khin Maung, a Rohingya community leader and rights activist, told AFP the demolitions had already hurt tens of thousands of refugees in the camps. "Rohingya families are large and the amount of food ration given to them is decreasing. Many families used to rely on the income from the shops," he said.

During his trip to Bangladesh, Mr. Andrews offered a number of recommendations from his mission, notably that the Rohingya community must be provided with security, educational opportunity, access to health care, and the creation of sustainable livelihood opportunities – especially in Bashan Char.

“Successfully addressing each of these key areas is in the interest, not only of the Rohingya community, but of everyone who shares the goal of a successful and sustained repatriation of the Rohingya community back to where they most want to go, home”, he underscored.

So, these demolitions of the Rohingya makeshift shops that tore apart their livelihood opportunities just within the days of Tom Andrews’s trip to Bangladesh is simply callous, if not cruel and inexcusable. They undermine Bangladesh’s position greatly within the international community. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is not looked upon favorably for these latest actions that are heartless.

As expected, the human rights groups have criticized these actions to bulldoze makeshift shops that serve their communities.

“Works are underway in the vacated land for building homes and health centers for the Rohingyas,” Shamasud Douza, additional commissioner, RRRC, told Arab News, adding that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other groups are already supplying the community with aid.

“The Rohingyas are not allowed to run any shops and conduct business here,” Douza said. “The demolitions of these illegal shops are a part of our regular activity which we have been doing (from) time to time since 2018.”

This is the first occasion, however, that so many shops have been removed by the authorities in one go.

Mohammad Alamin, who used to have a shop in Ukhia camp, said he was left with no means to support his family.

“We receive 13 kg of rice for each member of the family in addition with edible oil, lentils, salt, sugar, onion, etc. But the family needs many other things to survive, for which we need some cash. Without having any livelihood scopes, how can we survive?” he told Arab News.

“I used to run a small shop selling tea, cookies, betel leaf, etc. But it was bulldozed on Dec. 8. I used to make a daily profit of around $3 per day which was a big support for my seven-member family.”

Nobi Hossain, whose vegetable shop was also demolished, said that without local stores, staple items were not available to the community.

“There are many daily necessities which we need to buy. If we can’t run these small shops, from where we will source it?” he asked. “This type of initiative by the authorities will only increase our miseries.”

Salim Ullah, whose grocery shop was torn down, said he would now struggle to feed his family of eight. “That shop was my last hope. How do I run a family now? There is no way out except to die. I am helpless,” he said.

Saad Hammadi of Amnesty International said the move would leave refugees vulnerable to exploitation and worsen conditions in the camps. “Demolition of shops and closure of community-led schools … aggravate tension and frustration,” he said.

Hammadi urged authorities to “protect the rights and dignity of the Rohingya refugees by involving them in the decisions including their right to earn a living”.

The recent demolition push has also raised concerns over the pressure it may create on Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar to relocate to the controversial camp on Bhasan Char. The camp has been described in the Human Rights Watch (HRW) website as “an island jail in the middle of the sea.”

Nur Khan Liton, a human rights activist in Bangladesh, said, “If thousands of Rohingyas live there, naturally they will require some sort of small things. If they are not allowed to run small shops within the community, it will put them in trouble.”

“We should keep in mind that these Rohingyas are refugees here and their issue should be dealt with a more humanitarian perspective, until they make a safe repatriation to their homeland with due dignity and honor.”

Mr. Liton is right.

When a person is suffering, simply showing sympathy is not enough. Empathy is required to really understand and feel the gravity of the pains suffered by a refugee. When a Rohingya refugee is forced to beg, his school in the camp is closed, his living condition unhospitable, his means of livelihood denied, his makeshift tents burned down and/or deliberately left unprotected, his movements restricted, his rights to information, education, health services and peaceful assembly denied, his desire for bettering the condition of his loved ones in honorable (halal) ways is throttled – the message is loud and clear that Bangladesh government, in particular, and the world community, at large, have failed in their tasks miserably.

When a fleeing Rohingya is pushed back and denied entry, it is simply criminal. Shockingly, every month hundreds of fleeing Rohingyas continue to be pushed back in many parts of south-east Asia.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina needs to evaluate the rogue actions of the RRRC and take appropriate corrective measures to undo the harms caused by the officials of the RRRC. The Bangladesh government should urgently reverse the decision to close thousands of home-based and community-led schools for Rohingya refugee students, failing which approximately 30,000 children will lose their access to education. The government must also recompense all those refugee vendors and owners of the demolished makeshift shops handsomely towards easing their pains, and furnish new facilities that help them economically.

As a former refugee herself who had lost many of her loved ones on August 15, 1975, Sheikh Hasina ought to know better than most victims that while demolitions are easy and mending fences are difficult, it is much more difficult to mend people’s hearts and relieve their pains.

For no fault of theirs, the Rohingyas were forced to flee genocidal campaigns in Myanmar and take refuge inside Bangladesh. They have no desire to prolong their sad stay by a single day if conditions permit for their dignified repatriation back in Arakan (Rakhine state). Until that materializes, due care should be taken so that they are treated well. And surely, they should not be punished for being victims of genocide! 

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