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Saving Rohingya's children, or how to outlive a conflict

by Kyaw Hla Aung | Aurora Prize nominee
Tuesday, 24 April 2018 13:37 GMT

Rohingya refugees scramble for aid at a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh September 24, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We as a people must look to protect our very existence, and ensure we survive to the next generation

For decades now, I have watched my people suffer persecution, harassment and oppression. The Rohingya community continues to be the victims of a humanitarian crisis that the world has been reluctant to confront, until the exodus into Bangladesh made us impossible to ignore. Today, the Rohingyas are mostly stateless.                                                                     

With many aid agencies and international NGOs now on the ground in Myanmar and Bangladesh, the scale of this crisis is coming to light. Thousands of people, including hundreds of non-Muslims, died between 2012 violence and 2017. As of today, there are hundreds of thousands of Rohingya living in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Whilst the regional powers debate some form of political solution, we as a people must look to protect our very existence, and ensure we survive to the next generation. To do so, we must defend our children, who have had their childhoods interrupted through no fault of their own.

As a result of the refugee crisis, hundreds of thousands of the Rohingya children remain at risk. This is an entire generation of this our people, and unless they are returned to some kind of normality, and have access to basic schooling and education, I fear they will become a lost generation.

In 2018, the International Rescue Committee estimates that more than 500,000 Rohingya refugee children will go without any form of schooling or formal education. This is largely due to restrictions on their movement, poverty, and the lack of schools in Rakhine State.

For children everywhere, school is about much more than just learning. It provides a form of routine and a sense of normality, as well as discipline. Many of these children have been through incredibly traumatic experiences, and school presents a brief respite and a way to cope.

It is also the place where young people make friends, play, and remember what it's like to be a child. Today, 50 percent of Rohingya refugees are children. If they are ever able to return to their homes, it is vital that they maintain a sense of community.

More urgently, education is also a form of protection from exploitation and abuse, such as child labour, human trafficking and forced marriage. These children are some of the most vulnerable in the world, and in addition to persecution in their own country, they are at risk from organised gangs looking to recruit or enslave them. Without education, these children have no structure, no place of safety during the daytime and no realistic employment prospects, making them even easier prey for criminals.

Whilst the refugee crisis has worsened this issue, it is far from new. For decades now, Rohingya children have struggled for access to basic education, which has limited their employability as they grew into adults. Over eighty percent of our community is illiterate. For the most part, young Rohingya adults are seen by non-Muslims in Myanmar as unskilled and unemployable. The perception of our people as uneducated only worsens tensions within Myanmar and reinforces the view that our community is a burden on the country.

This is a lesser-talked about problem facing the Rohingyas. “We must ensure that our next generation has a basic education and can help us rebuild. I know this myself from first-hand experience. Having been fortunate enough to receive a formal education and qualify as an attorney, I have spent my life championing Rohingyas’ rights and battling inequality within Myanmar at great personal cost.

Whilst there are now several charities and NGOs working in our refugee camps to set up improvised schools, education generally receives less than two percent of foreign aid funding. The schools that are being set up are very basic and are only aimed at certain ages. We need qualified teachers and basic facilities in our communities and are calling for greater levels of government aid and funding to make this happen.

I will not give up hope, and I will continue to work alongside aid agencies and governments to ensure our children, and our people, have a future.

Kyaw Hla Aung is one of three humanitarians to be honoured at the third annual Aurora Prize Ceremony in Yerevan, Armenia on June 9, 2018. The Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity is a global humanitarian award founded on behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide established to recognize modern-day heroes.