Refugees are an essential part of our shared humanity
Back in June, many Rohingya children I met in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps told me that they want to become teachers when they grow up, so that they can teach other children to become teachers as well.
I initially laughed as one child after another echoed the same interest to become teachers until one of them explained to me how they want to lift the community out of the marginalized conditions in Myanmar.
Mohammad Zubair, a Rohingya boy who will soon turn 18, is a classic example.
He remembers, when he was eight years old, an old man in his community died of illness because the Myanmar security forces did not allow him to travel to Maungdaw for medical treatment. He has wanted to become a doctor ever since then.
As he grew up, he realized that discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar is politically constructed. He aspires to “free the Rohingya people” from the country’s discriminatory laws someday by becoming a politician.
Zubair is a survivor of the Myanmar military’s brutal crackdown against the Rohingya in the Northern Rakhine state in August 2017. He was about to finish his schooling when he fled to Bangladesh with his parents and seven siblings on September 1, 2017.
A week from now, he will have lived for two years in Bangladesh. Had there been no violence in Myanmar, he would have finished his matriculation at 16, which would be the usual age for a child to complete high school.
But in Bangladesh, his education hangs in the balance. His immediate younger sister, who was studying in grade 9 in Maungdaw High School also has no place to continue her education.
‘My dream is to study’
Zubair, however, is grateful to the people and the Bangladesh government for saving their lives by providing shelter to the Rohingya refugees at great cost of the country’s own resources.
Zubair has engaged himself with a garbage cleaning campaign by a charity movement in the refugee camp, which gives him a token monthly income.
But he says: “I’m not happy with this because my dream is to study and to free my people. I think the power of education is the best solution for every refugee, not just for Rohingya.”
If they are empowered with education, these children have the opportunity to reach their full potential and contribute to their communities’ empowerment in Myanmar.
If they do not get an education, we could see a lost generation of Rohingya children, and the entire community will suffer further.
I cannot agree more with Zubair, and I hope that the Bangladesh government will see the long-term benefits that an educated Rohingya generation can bring to claim their rights.
The Rohingya children, who fled to Bangladesh, bear scars -- both physically and mentally. Those born in Bangladesh will grow up in a marginalized setting.
Children without education are most vulnerable to those who seek to exploit them -- whether it is drug smugglers, child traffickers, armed groups, and others who sense opportunity in people’s misery.
Not a big burden
With education, by contrast, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her government can turn their frustration into gratification and allow them to lead a life with dignity.
Bangladesh must act pro-actively to prevent the Rohingya children from being exploited, becoming a lost generation or “a big burden.” A life on hold benefits no one.
A country that has made immense progress in primary school enrolment at 98% cannot underestimate the value of education for a generation of Rohingya.
The current education that children in the Rohingya refugee camps are offered at the learning centres managed by UNICEF is basic, informal, and inadequate.
An accredited curriculum and certification will ensure they are eligible for higher education opportunities.
In the two years since the Rohingya exodus, Myanmar has not made any progress into the repatriation for more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees.
The ongoing violence in the Northern Rakhine state makes immediate repatriation dangerous and unsustainable.
Education can help ensure that repatriation, when it does occur, is truly voluntary and sustainable in the long term.
As Bob Rae, Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar, observed recently, countries like Canada must make primary and secondary education in Rakhine and Bangladesh for Rohingya children a significant priority.
If Bangladesh showed the political will to provide education for refugees, countries like Canada would likely provide economic assistance to achieve this.
PM Sheikh Hasina and her policy-makers must weigh the social, moral, and economic benefits of an educated Rohingya generation than one without, as Zubair and other Rohingya children risk losing out academic years to finish their schools.
If we can nurture the potentials of Zubair and the half a million Rohingya children below the age of 18, we will create the environment for them to give back to the community they grow up in.
Bangladesh is a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights that stipulates the state parties to guarantee “the right of everyone to education.”
PM Sheikh Hasina’s political and humanitarian commitment will leave a legacy for Bangladesh if she saves a generation of Rohingya by providing them with access to education.
At the same time, as renowned Chinese artist and refugee rights activist Ai Weiwei puts it: “Refugees must be seen to be an essential part of our shared humanity.”
The international community must commit to funds for Rohingya children’s access to accredited education and engage in dialogues with the Bangladesh government about how this can be implemented to avoid a lost generation of school-aged Rohingya children.
Saad Hammadi is Regional Campaigner for South Asia at Amnesty International. Available on Twitter: @saadhammadi.