I will never forget my first few minutes as a UNICEF intern in the Rohingya refugee camps of the Cox’s Bazar area of southeastern Bangladesh. It was the afternoon of June 23. Less than half an hour after I entered the camps, I found myself standing inside the home of a young Rohingya woman named Humeira. Just 15 minutes before, she had given birth to a son, with only two neighbours for company.
The young mother’s home was in the vast and sprawling Hakimpara camp, one of 30-odd settlements inhabited by about one million refugees. Humeira’s shelter resembled thousands of others made out of bamboo and tarpaulin. Inside, it was stiflingly hot and impossible to stay dry. In the region, the intense humidity is only alleviated by bouts of heavy monsoon rainfall.
All that separated Humeira’s unnamed child from the dustiness of the shelter’s floor was a flimsy white sheet. It was one of many daunting discomforts and challenges the child will undoubtedly face as he grows up in the camps.
Nearly all the refugees there are stateless, not accepted as citizens by either Myanmar or Bangladesh. This has many consequences. They are forbidden from attending schools in Bangladesh and are not officially allowed to seek employment, even though it is well known that many work as day labourers inside and outside of the camps.
The refugees are likewise not officially permitted to have Bangladeshi mobile phone SIM cards, a restriction that prevents them from communicating with family members that may still be in Myanmar.
Nearly all the refugees rely on the UN’s World Food Programme for food handouts. None of the shelters in the camps have internal running water and any electricity mostly comes from solar-powered car batteries.
The refugees depend entirely on domestic and international aid agencies for health care provision.
Humeira was not able to go to one of the few hospitals in the camps because her husband was unable to take her. He had been recently injured by an auto rickshaw on one of the crowded and potholed roads that criss-cross land that two years ago was almost completely uninhabited.
Given these huge disadvantages, Humeira’s young baby — still covered in blood when I walked in — perhaps had every reason to cry as loudly as he did. I had never seen a child that young and I know next to nothing about postnatal care. Yet the enormity of the Rohingya crisis meant that I was most likely the only aid worker Humeira saw on that day — and perhaps even the first she had seen since becoming pregnant.
This baby was her seventh child. Such large families are not unusual in the camps, where birth control is almost non-existent. There are about 500,000 children aged under 18 and 300,000 aged three to 14. Some estimates say that as many as 60 babies are born every day in the camps.
Walking through Hakimpara, one of the most powerful impressions you get is of semi-naked children under five everywhere. It feels like a massive kindergarten inside a dust bowl.
Now, two months after my arrival, the camps are marking two years since the Rohingyas fled violence by Myanmar’s security forces in Rakhine State. According to Medecins Sans Frontieres, more than 6,000 Rohingya were killed in the month following attacks on August 25, 2017, prompting an estimated 700,000 to flee their homes for Bangladesh.
The anniversary comes at a time when Bangladesh and Myanmar are planning a second attempt to return 3,450 Rohinyga Muslims to Rakhine. Given the reported dangers currently facing Rohingyas there, it is doubtful that these refugees will want to go back. Even for those who do want to, returning would be difficult, as many of their homes were destroyed by the Burmese army during the 2017 exodus.
The UN has made clear that any repatriation of refugees must be done voluntarily. They have also called for the Rohingyas to be allowed to travel safely and to receive full Burmese citizenship. But there is a lack of optimism among the international community about an early return to Myanmar, and refugees like Humeira and her newborn son are likely to spend the foreseeable future in camps that are generally accepted not be suitable for such a large volume of people.
Back in July, weeks after meeting Humeira and her newborn son, I met an 18-year-old named Abdul Rahman. He had no access to education and was unemployed. Dissatisfied with life in the camps and traumatized by the atrocities he witnessed in Myanmar, he told me through a translator that he was desperate to secure “vengeance” for the hundreds of Rohingya women who reported being raped by the Burmese military.
When asked what he meant by “vengeance,” he said: “The same [violence] must be done to [the Burmese],” adding that many young Rohingyas feel equally belligerent.
The sense of frustration among bored young male Rohingya adolescents is palpable. In Rahman’s case, this frustration arose from the fact that as the oldest of his family, his joblessness means he is unable to provide for his three younger siblings. Furthermore, he said he feels powerless to look after his father, who had his leg amputated after he was shot by the Burmese army in 2017. Family members had to carry him into Bangladesh using a giant bamboo sling.
Humeira’s son is a member of the first generation of children who will come to know life only through their experiences in the camp. It is likely he will grow up having the same grievances as Rahman.
If Rohingya children and youth are to have any chances in life, UNICEF spokesperson Alastair Lawson-Tancred told me, it is imperative they receive education.
“So far, enormous progress has been made in providing some form of teaching to younger children. But, there are still far too many adolescent refugees who are not getting any education at all,” Lawson-Tancred said. “UNICEF and other aid agencies see adolescent access to education as the key priority over the next few months.”
In late June, 34 Canadian senators and more than 100 organizations called on Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland to initiate genocide proceedings against Myanmar at the International Criminal Court. While such measures may be launched after Rahman’s teenage years are over, what was so clear to me during my time in Bangladesh is that the future of Humeira’s seventh child depends on a just and equitable solution to the Rohingya crisis.