“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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.”