Rohingya Refugees Denied Formal Education

David Vu and Safa Hameed

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For the past two years, it was revealed that Rohingya refugees have been denied the right to education in refugee camps along the Bangladeshi coast. The fracture in education was revealed through a report filed by the Human Rights Watch, HRW, on December 2, 2019.

One of the learning centers in the camp (Photo By: Human Rights Watch).

The 81-page report, “‘Are We Not Human?’: Denial of Education for Rohingya Refugee Children in Bangladesh”, documents the notions which Bangladesh has taken in regards to compromising children’s education. These prohibitions include no right to formal education, accredited education, secondary education (past the seventh grade), and the application and use of the Bengali language and curriculum. This confines the Rohingya into the small box that stops their assimilation and integration into Bangladesh as well as hindering the process that allows them to have positive impacts on society and the economy. The HRW interviewed 163 Rohingya children, parents, teachers, government officials, humanitarian groups, and has conducted research on government policy, documents, and aid plans in order to find out more about the educational systems in the refugee camp. One Rohingya teacher told Human Rights Watch that there were about 300,000 children in the camps “who did not even finish class three” and whose “future will be destroyed, because there is no proper education.” Now the HRW is asking formally for international adversaries and Bangladesh to reverse whatever restrictions it has put into place on these children.

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority from Myanmar who have been ousted and made stateless by the government. In 1982, persecution began after the Rohingya were stripped of all their rights because the government determined that they were not one of the 135 original Burmese ethnicities, therefore, making them eligible for citizenship and the rights that come along with it. These assumptions were based on ethnicity and racial survey conducted by the British in the eighteen hundreds where the Rohingya were not documented. However, the survey clashes with history now known today as there are multiple records of them being there prior to the eighteen hundreds. Rape; killings; mass murders; and concentrated persecution in education, movement, and jobs have caused the Rohingya to began seeking refuge and asylum in Bangladesh as early as the ’80s and most recently in 2017.

To begin with, the refugees are confined within the walls of their camp in order to comply with laws. This in return means that they are not allowed to receive an education from Bengali schools or take national exams in order to credit their education. Because of this, it was thought that the Bengali government would issue means to an education, but they themselves banned the use of their own curriculum and language as wells as other humanitarian groups and non-profit organizations, NGOs, from providing different formal credited curriculum. To solve this dilemma, UNICEF took it upon themselves to make their own curriculum for the children, however, they did so under strict guidelines and technicalities. The curriculum was not even called curriculum but rather an “informal Learning Competency Framework and Approach” that provided “facilitators” not teachers who taught in “learning centers” and not schools. The curriculum was not allowed to be accredited, formal, or advanced. The informal program ranged from PreK to third grade and was submitted, along with day-to-day lesson plans and textbooks, for approval by the Bengali government around March-July of 2018, yet it had only been approved and rolled out for use in the camps by January of this year. Once the whole entire curriculum will be given the green light by the government, it will provide informal lessons for PreK to ninth grade and the school hours will have increased from two to three and a half. A major problem is the unanswered question of whether or not the government will accredit the education that the Rohingya have been taking part of in the camps. Although it may not seem like a lot, it is a major improvement of what came before UNICEF stepped in: basic instruction in Maths, Burmese, and English in which many kids commented that it was just “playtime” for them.

Furthermore, under the regulations Bangladesh has imposed on the refugees, they are not allowed to learn in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. So, NGOs built 3,000 learning centers which are comprised of a one-story bamboo classroom that can fit up to 40 children at a time. Only half of these centers have access to bathrooms or water nearby while none had electricity, desks, or chairs. Currently, though, these centers are rotting due infestation of worms and are victims of damage caused by the monsoon seasons. In order to accommodate the 400,000 students and an inadequate number of teachers or classrooms, “schools” can only maintain three shifts a day comprised of two hours each.

Many children have expressed their frustrations at not being able to continue primary and secondary school and have felt like all the years of studying back home have gone to waste. For many of them, the learning centers do not give access to substantial education that they need and so they turn to lessons from the few Rohingya at the camp with a college or high school degree. Eventually, these paid “private tutors” opened up their own schools, profiting on what was high in demand; however, as of late last year the government cracked down on them and ended up closing most private centers that they deemed “too advanced”. Even with these private lessons, there are lapses in knowledge as well as no way to credit them in order to earn a real degree.

Despite all this, Bangladesh still has the responsibility to ensure that all children have access to the right education under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other human rights treaties as well as the 2018 Global Refugee Compact, which according to the HRW “calls for the integration of refugee children into national education systems.” The Convention that was signed ensures that there be equality in education. This laments the fact that what the government is doing as at least unethical and at most unlawful as the hindering of education for children based on their refugee status is discriminatory. 

Denial of education for the Rohingya stops them from becoming self-sustaining and sufficient refugees that they could be. They all have the potential to have a positive impact on Myanmar or Bangladesh, however, when they aren’t given the opportunities or resources they fall into the trap that most refugees and immigrants are lured into and associated with: laziness, drug trafficking, sex trafficking, and human trafficking. Most of these children sit in the camps with nothing to do, causing them to take part “extremely vulnerable to problematic activities”. In fact, one humanitarian claimed that “Yaba trafficking [an artificial psychotropic drug] is huge in the camp. And human trafficking.” Giving something for them to focus on like serious schooling lowers the chances of them falling into these dangerous habits.

Even from across the sea the Rohingya cannot escape persecution from Myanmar, who when asked for permission to credit and use the Burmese curriculum by UNICEF, refused. This comes to no surprise as many children faced harassment, discrimination, and abuse at schools in Myanmar. Only non-Rohingya teachers were permitted to work, and many of them refused to teach the minority leaving them teacherless. Inequities have increased since all universities have now refused acceptance to any Rohingya. These discriminations and failures of society further deplore on why it is important to not give up on these children now, for it is essential to their future. 

These reprisals in right to education by the Bangladesh government stemmed from the fact that they only plan to have these refugees for two years before starting repatriations with the Myanmarese government for the return of refugees, almost a million in number, back to Myanmar. “Bangladesh has made it clear that it doesn’t want the Rohingya to remain indefinitely, but depriving children of education just compounds the harm to the children and won’t resolve the refugees’ plight any faster,” said Bill Van Esveld, associate children’s rights director at HRW. It is because of this dissatisfaction for the refugees (albeit it is brought upon with understanding considering the country’s own ongoing social and economic problems) that the government is fearful of implementing a formal accredited Bengali curriculum. This would give the Rohingya the opportunity to assimilate and integrate into Bengali society both socially and economically; creating links between them and Bangladesh would make it harder to send them back. The most important thing to note is that the two year period of asylum is almost up and by next year August negotiations should be done for their repatriation. However, it is still dangerous for the Rohingya and even deadly as the “Myanmar officials responsible for the attacks since August 2017 continue to enjoy impunity, the authorities have continued to destroy Rohingya residential communities, and the citizenship law that effectively prevents Rohingya from obtaining Myanmar citizenship remains in force.

As of now, the Rohingya are a fluctuating and stateless people whose people and future seem to be dwindling as the days go by.  Whatever justice there is left for them is found in the hands of the International Criminal Court, ICC, and the International Court of Justice, ICJ. The ICC plans to open an investigation after prosecutors submitted formal requests while the ICJ plans to open a case submitted by the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, claiming that Myanmar perpetrated genocide. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Myanmar plans to testify next week at the Hague for the charges prosecutors have brought to the table. It is estimated that cases like these will take years before the court reaches a ruling on the matter.