In one of the most comprehensive analyses to date of life in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar in southern Bangladesh, Childhood Interrupted details the wide-ranging daily challenges and fears faced by refugee children, many of whom reported witnessing brutal violence, killing of family members or their homes being burnt to the ground in Myanmar.
Girls told researchers they were afraid to use the camp’s toilets for fear of harassment, often waiting hours “until the men go away”. Children reported being worried about the security of their tents, which are made of bamboo and plastic. “Sometimes thieves come in and steal our belongings and we have no way to lock our house,” one boy said.
Several children revealed they were afraid to collect firewood because of “forest men” who beat them and shout abuses, as well as the threat of wild animals like elephants and snakes. “Everybody suffers when collecting firewood. There was once a girl who was raped when collecting firewood at night,” a girl recalled.
The risk of child trafficking was also a major concern identified by children, with some saying they spent more time at home to keep safe, and travelled in groups if they had to leave. A mother warned that “kidnappers are moving around, they might take our children”.
At least 32 cases of child trafficking have so far been confirmed in the camps since August, however aid workers fear the actual number is much higher.
Children also highlighted a number of positive developments in the camps. Several said the call to prayer five times a day helped them feel connected to the community, while they were comforted by the presence of aid organisations and the Bangladesh army.
At least 688,000 refugees, more than half of whom are children, have fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine State since August 25 following an extreme escalation of violence, with most now living in flimsy plastic tents in overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazar.
Children were asked to identify the issues that most affected them. Collecting firewood, poor shelter conditions and a lack of education were the three biggest concerns, according to the report, which involved focus groups and interviews with 200 Rohingya and host community children and 40 mothers.
“We cannot expect Rohingya children to overcome the traumatic experiences they’ve suffered when exposed to further insecurity and fears of violence in the camps. The overwhelming message from these children is that they are afraid – afraid of wild animals, afraid of going to the toilet, afraid of being attacked while collecting firewood, afraid of being taken in the night, afraid of what the future holds. This is no way for a child to live, especially after having fled violence and horror in Myanmar. These children need ongoing support to help them feel more secure,” said Mark Pierce, Country Director for Save the Children in Bangladesh.
Plan International Australia’s Acting CEO Susanne Legena said: “Make no mistake that this crisis is a children’s emergency. Children told us their worlds have been torn apart. They have gone from living in a community where they know the neighbourhood, have close friends, a routine, a good variety of food and safe places to play, to a chaotic, overcrowded and frightening place. Many are orphaned and lost, living in a perpetual state of anxiety. Addressing the safety concerns of these children must be our number one priority. We must use Australia’s position on the Human Rights Council to pressure the international community to fully fund the humanitarian response without delay.”
World Vision Australia chief advocate Tim Costello said: “Children deserve to grow up in a world free from fear, enabling them to live life in all its fullness. I was in Cox’s Bazar last year and what I saw was some of the worst human suffering I’ve ever witnessed. I am shocked and heart-broken by what the children living in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar continue to face daily. They aren’t asking for much. Lights to make it safe for them to go to the toilet at night. Adequate shelters to provide privacy so they don’t have to sleep in the same room as strangers. More opportunities to learn.”
The three agencies also proposed measures to address issues identified by children, including:
• A review of existing community safety patrols in the camps
• Awareness raising around trafficking risks to prevent incidences and to ensure accurate information on the prevalence to counter rumours and unnecessary fear
• Encourage a more child friendly camp lay-out and sign-posting to address fears of children getting lost as tents look similar
• Ensure the involvement of teenage girls in activities and measures to improve their feeling of safety
Spokespeople on the ground in Bangladesh and in Australia are available for comment.
- Save the Children: Jess Brennan 0421 334 918
- Plan International: Jane Gardner on 0438 130 905
- World Vision: Brianna Piazza 0408 624 934
Plan International has been working in Bangladesh since 1994 and has so far reached around 60,000 Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar since the latest influx through the provision of latrines, female friendly bathing spaces, distribution of hygiene kits and the installation of communal waste bins in the camps, coupled with hygiene promotion sessions. Plan has also been assisting with the registration of unaccompanied, separated and orphaned children, providing support, capacity building and case management. Plan aims to reach more than 250,000 Rohingya in the next 10 months and is focusing its response in Ukhiya.
World Vision has been working in Bangladesh since 1972, helping the most vulnerable children and families through both relief and development work. Having worked with communities in Cox’s Bazar since 1988, World Vision is uniquely positioned to be able to work closely with the Government of Bangladesh and aid agencies to meet the complex needs of refugees who fled violence from Myanmar’s Rakhine State into areas in and around Cox’s Bazar. World Vision’s refugee response in Cox’s Bazar, to date, has provided 230,000 interventions to and for children and households, focusing on food assistance, child protection, health and nutrition, water sanitation and hygiene, and shelter.
Save the Children has been working in Bangladesh since 1970 and responding to the Rohingya crisis in Cox’s Bazar since 2012, including after Cyclone Mora hit in May 2017. Save the Children has scaled up its response significantly since August 2017, providing life-saving food support, hygiene kits, household kits and shelter kits, as well as delivering primary health care services through the deployment of its Emergency Health Unit. The aid agency is also providing water, sanitation and nutrition support, learning activities and child protection services, and has reached more than 380,000 Rohingya since the latest influx began on August 25.