“I could not sleep in Rakhine, but I can sleep here”

I was shocked by the stories I heard from Rohingya children on my recent visit to Bangladesh + to see the work of UNICEF and its partners to help 680,000 Rohingya refugees, 58% of which are children.

I had barely spent an hour in Kutupalong refugee camp before hearing a flood of terrible testimonies. Two young women 18 and 19 years old  told me how soldiers came to their village and demanded 40 girls to rape. The elders refused and the village was attacked and burnt. Many men were killed. The soldiers then raped all the girls and women. One young women’s child was killed with a knife in front of her. 80 families tried to flee but were stopped, again by soldiers, and forced to sit in water in a paddy field all day in the heat of the sun. 13 children died on the journey to Bangladesh. See this video report.

Stories like these are not the exception but the norm. Talking to partners and our child protection team, it’s clear that the Burmese military systematically raped many girls and women.

Man sitting on ground with taking notes while talking to two women
© UNICEF/Bangladesh/2018/ForsythUNICEF Deputy Executive Director Justin Forsyth listens to stories of displaced Rohingya refugees at Kutupalong refugee camp, Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh

Brutality has left its mark

Brutality has left its mark on many of the children and helping them deal with this trauma is an important part of the work of UNICEF and our partners. I visited one of 130 child friendly spaces, where children have the chance to be children again. One 11 year old boy showed me the picture he drew when he first arrived – helicopters attacking his village and lots of dead people, men hanged from trees – because they tried to stop their wives and sisters being raped. He and other children, after months of expert support, are now drawing happier pictures – a house with gardens and flowers, that they would one day want to return to.

With so much trauma and so many children out of school – 220,000 – there is a real threat of a lost generation of Rohingya children. UNICEF runs 680 child learning spaces for 80,000 children; these learning spaces are full of energy and enthusiasm – see video. Currently though, we can only provide classes for grades one and two, a new curriculum necessary for older children is still in the making.

A group of children with workbooks sitting on the floor and talking to a visiting man
UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Justin Forsyth interacts with Rohingya children at a learning space in Kutupalong refugee camp, Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh

There has been a huge effort to meet the needs of the Rohingya refugee population. Thanks to the Bangladeshi government, UN and NGOs, with the backing of donors, impressive progress has been made and UNICEF has played its part – digging hundreds of water bore wells, installing 14,000 toilets; getting 80,000 children into over 680 learning centers, helping immunize nearly a million people against cholera, and screening 335,000 children for malnutrition – just to name a few results.

But this progress is under threat. We are in a race against time to prepare for the heavy rains which will begin in April, and which could cause havoc to the camp with its weak infrastructure – specifically housing, water and sanitation. Congestion is a major challenge – currently, on average, 100 people must share a single latrine – increasing the risk of disease outbreaks – measles, diphtheria and cholera.

Children are particularly vulnerable because of high levels of malnutrition – 3-3.5% suffer severe acute malnutrition. We visited an UNICEF supported Outpatient Therapeutic Feeding Program (OTP) Center. The clinic (one of 23) treats children for malnutrition but also monitors for pneumonia, diarrhea, dengue and diphtheria.

Boy in yellow pants standing with a metal pot looks into camera as two other children look on from behind him
© UNICEF/Bangladesh/2018/ForsythDisplaced Rohingya children at a refugee camp in Bangladesh

“I could not sleep in Rakhine, but I can sleep here” 

Finally, the big issue everyone is talking about, is the return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. The Bangladeshi and Myanmar governments have signed an agreement to begin the return in the coming months. From my discussions with young people and children themselves, they want to go back but believe this is premature – the conditions are not right. They are terrified of what would happen to them. One boy told me: “I could not sleep in Rakhine, but I can sleep here.” A girl said :“Last time they cut my head, but if we go back they will cut out my heart, without asking any questions.”

As the SG has said, the return needs to be voluntary, safe, secure and dignified. It is clearly not yet safe in Rakhine and UN agencies have limited access to deliver basic services. See also my interviews with CNN and BBC 4 (Minute 36:18) or some coverage at AP/The New York TimesAFPReutersPress AssociationXinhua and Bangladesh News.

Justin Forsyth is Deputy Executive Director at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).


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