Remembering How To Be Children Amidst The Rohingya Crisis

Squashed into a small brick house in the middle of an overcrowded refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, children who have been stripped of their innocence by the ongoing Rohingya crisis are getting the chance to be kids again.

Rohingya children living in these Bangladeshi camps don’t have the chance to experience the childhood plights that you or I probably took for granted, like getting to argue with a school mate over a toy, or pretending that they’re full because they don’t want to eat their vegetables. Instead, the issues they get to face are more likely to involve learning how to cope with the loss of their home and often their family, and acclimatizing to a life of unease and uncertainty. However, amongst all of this, the development of Child Friendly Spaces is allowing kids to forget about the child un-friendly locales that make up their reality, if only for a couple of hours a day.

The Rohingya crisis

The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority who have been living in Rakhine State in Myanmar since the twelfth century, yet are not recognized as such. Viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the Rohingya are not awarded citizen rights or acknowledged as an ethnic group, and have been rendered stateless since 1982. In more recent times, the Rohingya people have been subject to crimes against humanity, gaining them the title of the most persecuted minority in the world.

Years of violence came to a head in August last year, when a series of clashes between the ethnic Rohingya people and Myanmar Security Forces resulted in an estimated 700,000 Rohingya people fleeing persecution in the Northern Rakhine province to neighbouring Bangladesh. Despite what has been dubbed by the United Nations as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” de facto leader and Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has denied the actions against the Rohingya, receiving international criticism.

Where are they living now?

Most Rohingya people have sought refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh, despite its limited land and resources to host such numbers. Other Rohingya people have relocated to Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia in search of refuge.

The camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar are currently home to nearly one million refugees, making them overcrowded and “slum-like,” according to The Guardian. They may be slum-like, but they are the only alternative to living under constant fear of attack, rape, and death in their home state of Rakhine in Myanmar.

Of the refugees who are now living in these overcrowded camps, half of them are under five, according to aid agencies estimates. The World Health Organization also projects that sixty thousand babies will be born into these camps in 2018.

These children, many of whom arrived to Bangladesh without their families, are vulnerable to exploitation, sexual harassment, and child trafficking, along with dealing with the psychological trauma of such a journey.

Child Friendly Spaces

Amongst the bleak reality of the camps, however, are over 150 UNICEF supported Child Friendly Spaces (CFS), that help the children who now call these areas home.

Child Friendly Spaces are an approach to support children’s rights and well-being in the midst of emergencies. Since 1999, CFS’s have been set up to support children with a safe space, education, psychological support, and supervised activities.

UNICEF is involved in the establishment and coordination of CFS’s, but they are usually operated by NGO’s or governments. In Kutupalong, the biggest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, the CFS’s are operated by BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), which was named the top rated Non Governmental Organization in the world, earlier this year.

While it seems naive to say that the CFS’s are put in place to “make life easier” for children like those living in Kutupalong, the centres are the main psychological support intervention used to aid children, and they are making a difference.

“The main purpose of the Child Friendly Spaces is to help children between the ages of 5-18, who had witnessed the brutality and violence carried out by Myanmar soldiers overcome their trauma,” says Sadrulalam, who runs a CFC in Kutupalong. He also explains that they use physio-psycho-social training which includes physical and counselling exercises. These activities and exercises provide a sense of structure, normalization, socialization and adult supervision to the children, in the hopes to build their resilience, and to mitigate against the development of more serious psychosocial problems.

Peer sessions and life skills

Inside the CSF in Kutupalong, amongst the paper decorations and polystyrene birds that adorn the room, is seven-year-old Sabialam, who enjoys the escape from reality offered by the Child Friendly Space. Sabialam’s mother was shot and killed by Myanmar soldiers, a painstakingly common reality for many of the children attending the CFS’s.

“I like it here because I have children my own age to play with,” he says. “The books and toys are good too,” he says. Having been through such traumatic journeys to get to Bangladesh, only to arrive at the reality of overcrowded and under resourced refugee camps, the chance for children like Sabialam to have a safe place to play Snakes and Ladders, and socialize with other children is something quite remarkable.

Along with playing and learning, kids like Sabialam are peered up with an adolescent to talk about what they have learnt in the spaces, and share their experiences. The adolescents come from one of the four adolescent centres in Kutupalong, made up of 25 boys and girls, who are trained in life skills like hygiene and sanitation, as well as receiving guidance and counselling to help protect them from the common dangers of early marriage, human trafficking, or entering into illegal work. The adolescents also receive training in cultivating farmland, building, and making handcrafts, to prepare them for the event that they return to their villages in Myanmar.

Peace manifests itself in many different ways, and Child Friendly Spaces are one of them. In 2019, UNICEF plans to set up a further 500 centres to continue serving and saving these kids. In a crisis of this proportion allowing these kids and adolescents to escape the circumstances that engulf them on a daily basis, even if its only for a few hours a day, is certainly this crisis’ silver lining.