“I spent 6 December through 3 January in Myanmar, almost half of that time in Rakhine State. I traveled to the northern part of the state – where the violence broke out last August, driving 655,000 people, the vast majority of them Rohingya, across the border into Bangladesh. I also went to central Rakhine, where over 120,000 Rohingya have been stranded in squalid camps since 2012, and about 200,000 more live in villages where their freedom of movement and access to basic services are also increasingly restricted.
“UNICEF and our partners still don’t know what the true picture is of the children who remain in northern Rakhine because we don’t have enough access. What we do know is deeply troubling. Prior to 25 August, we were treating 4,800 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition; these children are no longer receiving this life-saving treatment. All 12 of the outpatient therapeutic treatment centres run by our partners are closed because they were either looted, destroyed or staff can’t access them. None of the five primary health care centres that we were supporting are functioning and there is nowhere near enough clean water or food aid being distributed. Partners have identified about 20 children separated from their families during the violence but estimate the total number to be at least 100, most of whom are in parts of northern Rakhine State that they still cannot access.
Scars of violence
“Maungdow town clearly bears the scars of the recent violence – large areas have been razed and flattened by bulldozers, most stores are shuttered, few people are on the streets, very few women and even fewer children. Our best estimates indicate that only about 60,000 Rohingya remain in Maungdaw, out of a pre-August 25 population of about 440,000. The Rohingya children who do remain in rural areas are almost totally isolated. We hear of high levels of toxic fear in children from both Rohingya and Rakhine communities.
“UNICEF stands ready to work with the Government of Myanmar and with the State Government of Rakhine to reach out to all children, irrespective of their ethnicity, religion, status or circumstance, to bring them the protection and assistance they need. For this, we urgently need regular and unlimited access across Rakhine State.
“While the eyes of the world are on the situation in northern Rakhine and in Cox’s Bazaar, over 60,000 Rohingya children remain almost forgotten, trapped in 23 camps in central Rakhine they were driven into by violence in 2012. Pre-existing restrictions on movement of people into and out of the camps were tightened first after the October 2016 outbreak of violence and again after August 2017, making it even harder for humanitarian workers to deliver aid to children, and making already poor conditions in the camps even worse.
“The worst camps are in appalling condition. Nget Chaung 1 and 2 in Pauktaw Township are only reachable by boat, a four-to-five-hour ride on the local boats used to deliver supplies. The camps are below sea level, with almost no tree cover. The first thing you notice when you reach the camps is the stomach-churning stench. Parts of the camps are literally cesspools. Shelters teeter on stilts above garbage and excrement. In one camp, the pond where people draw water from is separated by a low mud wall from the sewage. You can easily see how a little bit of rainfall would wash that filth over into the pond. Children walk barefoot through the muck. One camp manager reported four deaths among children ages 3-10 within the first 18 days of December. His only ask was for proper pathways so they wouldn’t have to walk through their own waste.
“The restrictions also mean it is extremely difficult for Rohingya to leave their camps for medical treatment. Permission to travel to seek medical assistance is only granted where there is a justification certified by a doctor. Checkpoints and curfews mean delays. The travel authorization costs money, which most people in the camps can’t afford. Relatives are often not permitted to accompany the patient. Once they are at a hospital, Rohingya are confined to a restricted area and not allowed outside contact. As a result, people are turning to traditional healers, untrained physicians or self-medicating. One UNICEF-supported caseworker told me that his daughter had committed suicide because she was unable to bear a pain in her abdomen that existing camp health services were unable to treat. Basic living conditions and access to lifesaving services need to be improved urgently.
“There’s an acute level of fear between the Rakhine and Rohingya communities. I was told by parents in one Rohingya village that they hadn’t had their children vaccinated against Japanese Encephalitis because the government vaccinators were accompanied by security officers – and I was told by government workers that they dared not go to Rohingya communities without security.
“The movement restrictions are shrinking horizons for children in the camps – nowhere more so than in terms of education. Most of the learning takes place in poorly-resourced temporary learning classrooms, with determined volunteer teachers who have little formal training. There are nowhere near enough classrooms to accommodate students and there is only one high school in the capital, Sittwe, where most camps are located, that caters to Rohingya students between 10th and 12th grades.
“Before, the more fortunate students from other camps would come to Sittwe for high school. This year however, one teacher told me that because of the movement restrictions, no student would make it out of the more remote camps. I met a 17-year-old high school graduate in a Sittwe camp whose only chance of going to university is through distance learning – with an institution that is less than a dozen kilometers from where he lives. No Muslim has been able to attend university in Rakhine state since 2012. “What’s the point of learning?” one mother asked me.
“Rohingya children desperately need education if they are to have any kind of prospects for a better future. Temporary solutions need to be improved immediately and more durable arrangements providing children with access to formal education, provided by properly trained teachers and recognized by the education system, must be set in place quickly. Otherwise this generation’s future prospects will be permanently damaged.
“The Government of Myanmar has established a ministerial committee tasked with implementing the recommendations of the final report of the Rakhine Advisory Commission chaired by Kofi Annan, which include addressing the stateless status of the Rohingya population and meeting priority needs.
“Rohingya children need a political solution to the issue of legal identity and citizenship. In the interim they need to be recognized first and foremost as children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees rights to health, education and opportunities to learn and grow to all children, irrespective of their ethnicity or status or the circumstances in which they find themselves. Ways and means must be found to deliver these rights to Rohingya children in Rakhine State today.
“Ethnic Rakhine children have also been deeply affected by years of communal violence and division. We have long worked to promote more equitable and inclusive access for all children across Rakhine and Myanmnar, and we stand by our principle that a child is a child and every child in need deserves help.
“The Annan Commission has provided a roadmap for a durable political solution so all children’s rights can be protected in a sustainable, open and fair manner in the longer term. UNICEF stands ready to support this crucial work. And we call on the global community, especially regional organizations and countries, to leverage their influence so children have better lives today and a future they can look forward to.”
This is a summary of what was said by Marixie Mercado, UNICEF spokesperson in Geneva – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at today’s press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.