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Rohingyas: The young and the restless

  • Published at 04:43 pm June 28th, 2018

Kawser (16) lives with her mother and four sisters in Kutupalong-Balukhali Extension camp – currently home to majority of the 0.9 million Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar. She lives in a small makeshift hut made of bamboo and tarpaulin. She was making a pile of roti – an exception to the daily meal of rice and pulse given as ration. The special arrangement was made to celebrate Eid ul-Fitr on the next day – the first Eid of their camp life. Kawser was very enthusiastic to talk to us. She and her sisters huddled around us inside their hut to tell their story. 

“We were relatively well-off back in Myanmar. We owned a two-storied house, a garden, some crop land and cows. We all worked in our crop land since our father died long ago. I also taught Burmese and English language to kids,” said Kawser who studied up to class four. 

 During the persecution of Rohingyas in late 2017, their house was burnt and their belongings were looted. They claimed that they saw women getting raped in their village in Maungdaw. The oldest sister, Yasmin’s (30) husband could not tolerate the atrocities by the attackers anymore. “When the father of my children charged forward to protest, he was shot in front of our house; in front of me.” Unable to do anything, Yasmin escaped with her three children; one of whom is an infant. 

None of the sisters or their mother work at the camp; they depend completely on reliefs for food, shelter and medicine provided by different organizations. They are one of the many female-headed households in the Rohingya camps. The women and girls are facing new challenges of earning a living within the strict practice of purdah and other Islamic restrictions. Most of the Rohingya women are expected to stay inside the huts while the men go outside to look for work.   

However, things are not looking up for most of the young Rohingya men either. Mohammad Aziz (18) from Akyab was hacked in the throat by Burmese attackers in Sittwe (formally known as Akyab). However, he managed to survive the injury unlike many other male Rohingya victims and escaped to Kutupalong camp. Now he spends his time roaming around while his family is completely dependent on humanitarian aid. As a refugee, he is not legally entitled to formal education or employment in Bangladesh.   

A total 1,179 learning centres have been set up by UNICEF, UNHCR and other partner organizations to provide informal pre-primary and primary education for Rohingya children aged between 3 to 14 years old (ISCG Situation Report June 2018). They are taught English, Burmese and mathematics in the learning centres; Bangla is not allowed to be taught. It is also not allowed to provide any formal education or employment opportunities for the Rohingya refugees. Moreover, there is almost no arrangement to provide informal education for the Rohingyas in their teens or 20s.  

This is alarming since the youth are not being engaged like the children in the camps. The young Rohingyas are a potential manpower who have limited or no access to education or income-generating activities. Less than 2,000 out of 117,000 adolescents aged between 15 to 24 years are provided with informal secondary education or life skills in the camps (ISCG Situation Report June 2018). 

Back in Myanmar, Rohingya youth had some opportunities to pursue higher education despite systematic oppression against them in the Rakhine State. However, after the eruption of extreme anti-Muslim violence in 2012, the doors of all the educational institutions were closed for them in addition to restricted mobility and denied citizenship. 

Now as refugees, some of them help their fathers to run small grocery or barber shops. Their daily profit may not exceed Tk 50 to 100. Some of them are occupied in casual work or day labour. Nur Mohamamd earns Tk 450 a day as a seasonal labourer. He is one of the many labourers employed by the Bangladesh Army to build roads inside the camps.   

Two sisters in Balukhali camp took the matter into their own hands to become the income earners of their family of 11 members. Mahmuda (18) and her sister, Fatema (19), borrowed Tk 6,000 from neighbors to buy a sewing machine three to four months ago. They learned how to sew back in their village in Myanmar. Mahmuda never went to school, “Our father is old. We always had to work to earn money.”

The sisters now work as tailors taking orders from their neighbors in the camp. They make salwar kameez, round frock for children and traditional Burmese dress of the women among other types of clothes. They get Tk 60 to Tk 100 per dress. “Some days we earn Tk 500. Some days we get Tk 100. And then there are days when we get no order at all,” said Mahmuda.

On the other hand, Mohammad Hasan (19) is working as a volunteer for the Red Crescent. He studied up to class 10 in a Burmese school where both Rakhines and Rohingyas studied together. “Eight to ten Rohingya boys now work with me. We help with repairing the shelters that were damaged in the recent heavy rain. We get Tk 6,000 per month.”

Access to formal employment is barred for refugees in many other countries and it is the same in Bangladesh. According to one study, majority of the refugees in the world are employed in the informal sector because most of the host countries are low or middle-income countries. Whether the refugees have difficulties to access formal employment is one factor but usually a big portion of the workforce of host countries themselves are employed in the informal sector.  

Overall wage of unskilled labour in Cox’s Bazar has decreased after the Rohingya influx as they agree to work below normal rates. Moreover, they are in competition with the majority of the locals in Teknaf and Ukhia who work in the informal sector of the poverty-stricken Cox’s Bazar. The effects on the informal employment of impoverished host communities also need to be kept in mind when formulating the policies to employ the Rohingyas. 

Almost a year has passed since the biggest influx of Rohingyas in Bangladesh – overwhelming majority (around 75%) of whom are women and children. Now the young Rohingyas are becoming restless. They want better food and better shelter. They want to earn money to buy what they need. Being desperate, they may resort to selling rations or getting involved in drug trafficking and other illegal activities for money, which are already happening.  

It is time the youth of the Rohingya community are engaged in productive activities. Vocational trainings on tailoring, handicraft or soap making, book binding, etc. could be provided to enhance the capacity of extremely vulnerable Rohingya women and adolescent girls. Trainings could be provided for the young men too from both the Rohingya and host communities. In addition to running women-friendly spaces and children’s learning centres inside the camps, the needs of both the adolescent girls and boys should be addressed.

A feature syndicated by Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD) and Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC).