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Childhood interrupted: Rohingya children live in

fear of kidnap, rape, wild animals

10 year-old Rohingya boy with a 5 year old friend who has stopped speaking and
walking completely since the trauma of having to flee. Source: Antonia
Roupell/Save the Children

By Emma Richards | 26th February 2018 | @EmmaRichards85

“NO ONE likes going to the woods,” says one Rohingya child living in the refugee
camps in Bangladesh. Children talk of violent “forest men”, wild animals,
kidnappings, and rape – but they have no choice, their family needs firewood.
Without it, their mother can’t cook dinner and their family will go hungry.
The fear of going out alone and moving around the huge camps is a recurring
theme in a new report detailing the experiences of children living in and near
these communities. In collaboration with Plan International and World Vision,
Save the Children’s Childhood Interrupted report spoke to 200 of the almost
380,000 children who have fled Burma (Myanmar) since August.
With over 655,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing across the border in just six months,
the conditions in the camp are basic, dangerous, and unsanitary as facilities and
aid agencies struggle to keep pace with the needs of the ever-expanding
community.
“All of the children identified different fears that they have, particularly around
things like wild animals like elephants and snakes. A lot of children are also
concerned around child protection issues, like kidnapping and human trafficking,”
Save the Children’s Evan Schuurman told Asian Correspondent.

Many children, expressed fear of doing simple everyday tasks that now come with
added danger and risk. In the dark camps, with no lighting in the night, going to
the toilet is too scary for most. Children are forced to either defecate near their
tent or wait until morning when, even then, the crowds of loud men and the
threat of kidnapping is enough to keep many, especially the girls, away.

“We feel unsafe at the latrine. It is far away from the camp. There is no light at
night,” said one child.

“There are many men around the latrines so girls feel ashamed to go there,” said
another.
But entering the surrounding forest is a necessity that cannot be avoided. While
boys are usually the ones left with the task of finding firewood, those families
without sons are forced to send their daughters.

Stories of children being harassed, abused and even raped play on the minds of
those going into the woods. But is not only humans that they fear; elephants,
snakes and other wild animals are also cause for concern. Elephants attacks are
becoming more frequent, especially in Kutupalong refugee camp which
neighbours an elephant sanctuary.

SEE ALSO: Elephant kills child, injures dozens in Rohingya refugee camp

The children also describe encounters with Bangladeshis from the host
communities who often shout and chase the children, calling them derogatory
names such as “Barmaiya,” meaning “other” or an outsider in Bangla.

“It is very difficult to collect firewood here. Everybody suffers when collecting
firewood,” said one young girl from Nayapara camp.

“‘Forest men’ beat us when we go to the forest. We cannot go to the forest at


night because it is very risky to collect firewood at night. There was once a girl
who was raped when collecting firewood at night.”
Children collect water in Kutupalong camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Source:
Antonia Roupell/Save the Children

Even once the children return to the camp, they do not feel safe. With trafficking
on the rise, children say they move around in groups to help navigate the
sprawling alleyways, in which it is easy to get lost, and minimise the risk of
kidnapping – a risk they are not safe from even in their family tents. With no way
to securely lock the doors on their tents, the majority of the groups, irrespective
of age or gender, said they feel unsafe in the place where they sleep.
Despite the gruelling and difficult conditions, the children interviewed in the
report did have times when they felt safe and cared for.

SEE ALSO: Rohingya refugees face ‘humanitarian crisis within the crisis’
“We feel safe when we go to the mosque,” said one girl between 15-17 who lives
in Nayapara camp. “There is no risk at the mosque because Bangladesh is a
Muslim country.

So nobody says anything if Rohingya people go to the mosque. The mosque is a


religious place and nobody says anything bad.”

After being persecuted for their religion in their home country of Burma, the
regular call to prayer from the local mosques is a light relief. Many said it makes
them feel safe and united with their families and friends and even with the
Bangladeshi community, because everyone shares the belief in Allah and prays in
the same way.

The learning centres are also a space where children felt safe and enjoyed the
freedom to play and learn – the two main top priorities for almost all the children
interviewed.
Child-friendly spaces in Rohingya refugee camps. Source: Antonia Roupell/Save
the Children

With limited space in the closely packed tent cities, opportunities for play are
restricted. Child-friendly spaces, where children can learn and play freely, are one
of the few places you see children truly happy and relaxed, said Schuurman who is
currently working in Cox’s Bazar.

“It’s a wonderful environment where children can be children again,” he said.


“They can play games, sing songs, and take part in different activities that are
designed to help them recover from the stress and traumatic experiences that
they’ve been through. Seeing children in that environment having fun and being
full of life is a truly special thing.”
Sadly, the access to education and child-friendly spaces in these camps is limited,
the report found. The number of learning facilities is inadequate and are unable
to cater to the sheer number of school-aged children. Time is also a barrier to
accessing education as children spend most of their time on household chores,
including the collection of water and firewood and distribution support.

SEE ALSO: Burma tells Bangladesh to stop aid to Rohingya in Zero Line

Setting up more classrooms or learning activities is one of the recommendations


made by the three agencies conducting the research. As, according to Schuurman,
education is also a key tool in tackling child trafficking, the need for more centres
cannot be more vital.

As Plan International Bangladesh Country Director Orla Murphy said:


“Addressing the safety concerns of these children must be our number one
priority.”
“Make no mistake that this crisis is a children’s emergency. Children told us their
worlds have been torn apart. They have gone from living in a community where
they know the neighbourhood, have close friends, a routine, a good variety of
food and safe places to play, to a chaotic, overcrowded and frightening place.
Many are orphaned and lost, living in a perpetual state of anxiety.”
Rohingya family in their makeshift shelter. Source: Antonia Roupell/Save the
Children
Other recommendations to those running the camps include a review of existing
community safety patrols in the camps; raising awareness around trafficking risks
to prevent incidences and to ensure accurate information on the prevalence to
counter rumours and unnecessary fear; the introduction of sign-posting and
lighting to create a more child friendly layout and minimise fears of getting lost;
and to ensure the involvement of teenage girls in activities and measures to
improve their feeling of safety.

Schuurman hopes that these practical measures, along with a call for the
international community to step up their funding of the Rohingya response, will
help to alleviate some of the fears and anxieties that plague these children’s daily
lives.

Until then, and with repatriation to Burma looking like a long and uncertain
process, children will continue to live in an environment in which they simply do
not feel safe.

“We live a captive life here,” said one boy from Kutupalong camp. “We cannot do
anything we want to do. We cannot play here… I want my old life in Myanmar
back.”
Posted by Thavam