“Education for all, why not for refugees?” Rohingya refugee children are missing out on education in Bangladesh

By Kate Schuetze and Alex Neve

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Bibi Ayesha is a 15 year old Rohingya girl who  was born in Bangladesh. Her family fled Myanmar during a wave of human rights violations against the Rohingya community in 1992. They have never been given official refugee status in Bangladesh.  Her father, determined to ensure that education was accessible for his daughter, managed to enroll her in a local school near the Nayapara Refugee Camp where they live. 

Earlier this year in January, however, the Bangladeshi government began strictly enforcing a long-standing policy that no Rohingya students would be allowed in local schools on the grounds that they are refugees and must go to schools in the camps.  However, the government does not allow formal schools in the camps, because they believe that will encourage refugees to remain in Bangladesh. The only options are the very basic Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) and Learning Centres, which mainly offer a place to play and some very rudimentary lessons.

Bibi, who has an obvious passion for learning, has remained at home ever since, and says, “I love education. I don’t want to be uneducated, it’s important. I want to become a doctor because I want to help my society, my country, and my people.”  Bibi rightly asks, “Education for all, why not for refugees?”

Lucky Akhtar, 15 years old, “If we can’t study ourselves, how possibly can we help others?” © Ahmer Khan / Amnesty International

Bibi’s friend and schoolmate, Lucky Akhtar, also 15 years old, has similarly been forced to stop going to school.  Lucky says, “we had a hope in our hearts that with our education we would be able save and help our community… Now, we don’t know what will happen… If we can’t study ourselves, how possibly can we help others?”

Access to decent education is not a reality today for Rohingya refugee children and youth in Bangladesh. It should be.  It is a right, enshrined in a number of international law treaties, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Bangladesh is bound by and which applies to all children in the country regardless of their status. The recent decision to enforce a strict ban on access to local schools clearly discriminates against a group already in a very vulnerable situation. However, it is also self-defeating. Education can play a vital role in maintaining stability and hope in the refugee camps; investing in the next generation and thereby helping to foster conditions for a successful return to Myanmar when it is safe to go home.

Fatima* (not her real name), is 12 years old.  She continues to go to a Child Friendly Space, the only option available to her in Jamtoli Camp. She says, “studying is my favourite thing” and “I want to study to become a teacher.” Sadly, though, the CFS will not offer her an education that enables her to realize that dream.

Rehina* (not her real name) is also 12 years old and fled from Myanmar with her family in 2017. She lives with her sister and brother in Kutupalong, the largest of several Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, in fact now the largest refugee camp in the world with over 600,000 inhabitants. Rehina used to attend one of the Child Friendly Spaces, that caters to young children. But she does not go anymore as her father, who has conservative religious views, has decided that since she has started to menstruate, she must now stay home. She misses going to the CFS, where she enjoyed learning new things. Even if her father did support her, however, there is no other option for older girls to pursue appropriate studies.

Ali, 16 years old, “I hope that someday I might be a leader in my community. I want to help find the solutions to the problems we Rohingya face. Education would help me do that.” © Amnesty International

Ali and Saeed are both 16 years old and wish nothing more than to be able to go to school.   They are too old to benefit from one of the Child Friendly Spaces. And there is nothing else open to them. Ali highlights how education is the key to so much.

 “I hope that someday I might be a leader in my community.  I want to help find the solutions to the problems we Rohingya face.  Education would help me do that.  But there is no option for me right now.  Instead I don’t know what my future will be.”

Yasmin (17) and Minera (15) spoke to Amnesty in one of the Women Friendly Spaces in Kutupalong  Camp. When they came to Bangladesh as adolescents, there was nothing for them – only the younger children. Minera wants an education so she can “read a book or a newspaper.” Yasmin says getting an education will help her to earn a living. They have only recently learnt to write their own names.

There are no formal schools in the camps. The Bangladesh government does not allow them. So, at best Bibi, Lucky, Rehina, Fatima, Ali, Saeed, Yasmin and Minera and other children can go to a Child Friendly Space, or perhaps a Woman Friendly Space for the older girls, where they might learn a little English, Burmese or Rohingyan language and have the chance to play and interact with other children and young people.

The importance of these facilities should not be underestimated, as all children have the right to leisure and play. However, the limited education they offer does not meet the standards required by international human rights law whether at the, primary level, which should be compulsory and available free to all children, or secondary level.  In this respect the Bangladesh government needs to remember that all refugee children are entitled to not just protection and humanitarian assistance but also human rights, including the right to education as guaranteed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.   

Consequently, while child Friendly Spaces have a role to play, they are not enough.

The mothers, fathers and grandparents we met, all stressed the need for a “real education” for their children and grandchildren. One woman with three young grandchildren noted, “I worry a lot for my grandchildren. What is their future?” She wants them to have an education. 

Sayed Alom provides occasional lessons to his grandchildren in the camps, “it is not always easy to convince the children to sit and learn from me when they can instead roam around the camp.” © Amnesty International

Worried about the lack of schools, adults in the camps, many of whom worked as teachers in Myanmar, are trying to informally fill the gap. That may mean grandfathers like Sayed Alom and Mohammed Ali provide occasional lessons to their grandchildren. But as Sayed notes, “it is not always easy to convince the children to sit and learn from me when they can instead roam around the camp.”

Hamid* and Raees* (not their real names) were both teachers in Myanmar, Hamid as a volunteer in a community school and Raees as a physics and economics teacher in a government school.  They have tried to arrange informal classes for their own children and neighbouring families, but with very different results showing how arbitrary and unfair the existing system can be. 

Hamid and two other friends were each offering informal classes to small groups of five students each.  However, the Majhi (local leaders in the camps, appointed by Bangladeshi authorities) in his Block at Balukhali Camp threatened to report him to the government official in charge of the camp, and so he has had to stop his teaching. Raees on the other hand is teaching a group of 20 students (including two girls) in his home for several hours a day, 6 days per week, with the full support of the Majhi in his Block. 

Raees stresses that “to learn is to grow and expand and understand the world and we should never rob children of that basic right, especially now when our Rohingya people have such difficult circumstances.” Hamid worries that “there are so many different attitudes and approaches to education in the camps and in the end some children are luckier than others, maybe just because of which Block they live in.”

The government’s ban on education for all Rohingya refugees is also impacting young adults who have lived in Bangladesh for a long time; many for their whole lives, never having lived in Myanmar.  Mohammed Kashin, 27 years old, was born in Bangladesh after his parents fled there in 1992.  He had recently enrolled in a technical school in the village of Ukhiya and was studying computer science.  But just like Bibi, he had to stop attending classes in January when it was announced that even Rohingya refugees who have lived their whole lives in Bangladesh are no longer allowed to go to local schools.

“One day I felt I was learning something that would help me build a better future, and now that has been taken away from me.  And why?  Just because I am Rohingya?  Just because I am a refugee?  That is not fair.”