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Childhood Interrupted: Children’s Voices from the Rohingya Refugee Crisis

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Wild elephants and snakes, violent men lurking in the forest and human traffickers on the prowl during the night. These are among the most pressing fears identified by Rohingya children who fled fighting in Myanmar to Bangladesh, according to a new report launched today by Save the Children, World Vision and Plan International to coincide with the six month mark of the crisis.

In one of the most comprehensive analyses to date of life in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar in southern Bangladesh, “Childhood Interrupted” details the wide-ranging daily challenges and fears faced by refugee children, many of whom reported witnessing brutal violence, killing of family members or their homes being burnt to the ground in Myanmar.

Girls told researchers they were afraid to use the camp’s toilets for fear of harassment, often waiting hours “until the men go away”. Children reported being worried about the security of their tents, which are made of bamboo and plastic. “Sometimes thieves come in and steal our belongings and we have no way to lock our house,” one boy said.

Several children revealed they were afraid to collect firewood because of “forest men” who beat them and shout abuses, as well as the threat of wild animals like elephants and snakes. “Everybody suffers when collecting firewood. There was once a girl who was raped when collecting firewood at night,” a girl recalled.

The risk of child trafficking was also a major concern identified by children, with some saying they spent more time at home to keep safe, and travelled in groups if they had to leave. A mother warned that “kidnappers are moving around, they might take our children”.

At least 28 cases of child trafficking have so far been confirmed in the camps since August, however aid workers fear the actual number is much higher.

Children also highlighted a number of positive developments in the camps. Several said the call to prayer five times a day helped them feel connected to the community, while they were comforted by the presence of aid organisations and the Bangladesh army.

At least 688,000 refugees, more than half of whom are children, have fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine State since August 25 following an extreme escalation of violence, with most now living in flimsy plastic tents in overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazar.

Children were asked to identify the issues that most affected them. Collecting firewood, poor shelter conditions and a lack of education were the three biggest concerns, according to the report, which involved focus groups and interviews with 200 Rohingya and host community children and 40 mothers.

“We cannot expect Rohingya children to overcome the traumatic experiences they’ve suffered when exposed to further insecurity and fears of violence in the camps. The overwhelming message from these children is that they are afraid – afraid of wild animals, afraid of going to the toilet, afraid of being attacked while collecting firewood, afraid of being taken in the night, afraid of what the future holds. This is no way for a child to live, especially after having fled violence and horror in Myanmar. These children need ongoing support to help them feel more secure,” said Mark Pierce, Country Director for Save the Children in Bangladesh.

Plan International Bangladesh Country Director Orla Murphy said: “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. Addressing the safety concerns of these children must be our number one priority.”

World Vision Bangladesh Country Director Fred Witteveen said: “Children deserve to grow up in a world free from fear, surrounded by those who love them—enabling them to live life in all its fullness. I am shocked and heart-broken by what the children living in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar are facing, instead. They aren’t asking for much. Lights to make it safe for them to go to the toilet at night. Adequate shelters to provide privacy so they don’t have to sleep in the same room as strangers. Better access to education.”

The three agencies also proposed measures to address issues identified by children, including:

  • A review of existing community safety patrols in the camps

  • Awareness raising around trafficking risks to prevent incidences and to ensure accurate information on the prevalence to counter rumours and unnecessary fear

  • Encourage a more child friendly camp lay-out and sign-posting to address fears of children getting lost as tents look similar

  • Ensure the involvement of teenage girls in activities and measures to improve their feeling of safety