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(Bangkok) – The government of Bangladesh is blocking aid groups from providing any meaningful education to Rohingya children in refugee camps and banning the children from attending schools outside the camps, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The government should urgently lift the restrictions that unlawfully deprive almost 400,000 Rohingya refugee children of their right to education.

The 81-page report, “‘Are We Not Human?’: Denial of Education for Rohingya Refugee Children in Bangladesh,” documents how Bangladesh prohibits aid groups in the refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar district from providing Rohingya children with accredited or formal education. There is no secondary-level education, and groups are barred from teaching the Bengali language and using the Bangladesh curriculum. Rohingya children have no opportunity to enroll in or continue their education at private or public schools outside the refugee camps.

“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 Human Rights Watch. “The government of Bangladesh saved countless lives by opening its borders and providing refuge to the Rohingya, but it needs to end its misguided policy of blocking education for Rohingya children.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 163 Rohingya children, parents, and teachers, as well as government officials and staff at humanitarian groups and United Nations agencies. Human Rights Watch also analyzed government policy documents and aid plans, and researched how aid groups have tried to deliver education programs for children in the camps while working within the government’s restrictions.

Rohingya refugee children have been watching their chance for an education and a better future evaporate, and two years on there is still not even a plan to enroll them in schools.
Bill Van Esveld

Human Rights Watch

Bangladesh has provided refuge to generations of ethnic Rohingya who fled previous waves of persecution in Myanmar but has never allowed Rohingya children to access to formal, accredited education. After Bangladesh opened its borders to an additional 740,000 Rohingya fleeing the Myanmar military’s deadly campaign of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity that started on August 25, 2017, the government prohibited aid groups from using even an existing, informal version of the Bangladesh curriculum in the camps. It claims that the Rohingya will return “within two years” to Myanmar.

UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, and other UN agencies have repeatedly stated, though, that conditions in Myanmar are currently not conducive for safe, voluntary, and dignified returns of Rohingya. No refugees have been willing to return despite two repatriation exercises organized by Bangladesh.

Myanmar also refused to approve the use of its curriculum in the camps, so UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, developed an informal education program from scratch. The program, submitted for government approval in April 2018, was designed to avoid the Bangladesh government’s ban on formal education, but Dhaka took a year to approve the first two “levels,” equivalent to preschool and the beginning of primary school. The government has still not approved the informal program’s upper three levels. 

The informal program is a substantial improvement over the lack of any structured learning, but falls far short of meeting Bangladesh’s obligation to ensure Rohingya children have access to quality education without discrimination, Human Rights Watch said. The program is not accredited, nor does it recognize children’s previous education in Myanmar. Even if the government fully approves all five levels of the informal program, children will still not be able to take national examinations or continue their education through secondary school.

In Myanmar, the government continues to deny nationality to Rohingya, and worsening restrictions on Rohingya’s freedom of movement have also blocked children from attending school there, particularly since 2012. Myanmar is obliged to ensure the safe, voluntary, and dignified return of the refugees, and should take steps toward ensuring their citizenship rights and holding those responsible for countless serious violations to account.

Persisting with the ban on formal education is harmful to Bangladesh’s own interests and devastates a new generation of Rohingya children, and the future of the Rohingya community as a whole, Human Rights Watch said. Children deprived of education are at increased risk of child labor and child marriage, of being trapped in poverty, and of being unable to fully participate in their societies. Refugee children who receive an education are less likely to fall under the influence of criminals or armed groups, and are able to contribute to the welfare of their host communities.

In line with international standards, refugees should participate in planning, implementing, and monitoring education programs. Aid groups that work in education should work more closely with Rohingya refugees, including former teachers who have established unofficial schools in the camps that teach the Myanmar curriculum. These schools are the only option for children who attended school in Myanmar to continue their studies especially at the secondary level. But because they lack Bangladesh’s approval, they receive no international support. Rohingya refugees said the lack of quality education in the camps had also contributed to the growth of Islamic religious schools, but they usually only provide basic religious instruction.

Myanmar should immediately approve and support the use of its curriculum in the camps, and Bangladesh should allow aid groups to provide quality education, including using formal Bangladesh and Myanmar curricula.

In addition to Bangladesh’s obligations to ensure the right to education for all children under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other human rights treaties, the 2018 Global Refugee Compact, which Bangladesh endorsed, calls for the integration of refugee children into national education systems. Foreign governments and UN agencies that joined the Compact also pledged that refugee children should have access to quality education within three months of being displaced, but have applied almost no public pressure on Bangladesh to lift unlawful restrictions on Rohingya children’s education.

International donors should continue to fund school refurbishments in host communities and support education for Bangladeshi children in the Cox’s Bazar district, which has the worst student-teacher ratios and out-of-school rates in the country. Donors should ensure adequate resources are available for both Bangladeshi and Rohingya children in the district and press Bangladesh to respect the rights of all children, including refugees.

The UN-coordinated humanitarian plans for the Rohingya in Bangladesh should include clear benchmarks to fulfill the right to education without discrimination, and donors and humanitarian groups should set timelines for Rohingya children’s access to formal, certified education. Donors should provide transparent, multi-year support to ensure education for Rohingya and host community children. As of October 2019, 60 percent of $59.5 million in humanitarian funding requirements for education for 2019 were still unmet.

“Rohingya refugee children have been watching their chance for an education and a better future evaporate, and two years on there is still not even a plan to enroll them in schools,” Van Esveld said. “Depriving an entire generation of children of education is in no one’s interest, and the international community needs to act and demand that Bangladesh and Myanmar change course.”

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