Instead of spending his days in school studying, 16-year-old Rohingya refugee Md. Sadeq begs in the streets of Cox’s Bazar district.
The teen had gone to school in Myanmar before his family fled to the district in southeastern Bangladesh to escape violence in his home state of Rakhine.
“I used to study at the ninth grade, but I could not continue education after I came here,” he told BenarNews. “I am not getting to work here. [I] am ashamed of begging.”
He is among thousands of Rohingya children who have been barred by Bangladeshi authorities from attending public schools in the district because they are officially unregistered, compared with children of refugees living in U.N.-registered camps who are able to go to school.
Thousands of Rohingya children, whose families have settled in camps and settlements for unregistered refugees in and around Cox’s Bazar, instead receive a religious education where they memorize the Quran in Islamic classrooms called maktabs.
The government estimates that at least 400,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar over the past decades. That number includes an estimated 66,000 who entered Bangladesh since October 2016, when Myanmar security forces launched a crackdown following the killings of nine border guards by suspected militants in Rakhine state.
“As every family has at least four to five children, we can assume the number of children is half of the population,” Md. Alam, a leader of the Rohingya camp in Leda in Teknaf sub-district, told BenarNews.
Of the total, only children of 35,000 Rohingya who live in UN-registered camps attend classes up to grade eight.
Unregistered Rohingya children are being educated in maktabs, classes instructed in the camps by imams, who, in many cases, have little education themselves.
Moulvi Tayebur Rahman teaches at one of nine maktabs in an unregistered camp in Leda, in Cox’s Bazar.
“About 450 children are receiving Arabic education. They do not get any mainstream education so they are lagging behind,” he told BenarNews. Arabic education means that children memorize passages from the Quran and are not taught subjects such as language, math, science or history.
A leader of the Kutupalong Rohingya camp, Md. Tayob, told BenarNews, “The children of these camps study Arabic in the morning and evening. They go begging the rest of the day.”
Lack of support
The U.N. has no permission to provide support to those in unregistered Rohingya camps, an official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told BenarNews on condition of anonymity.
UNHCR provides education, including classes in Burmese, the official language of Myanmar, up to grade 8, for about 8,000 children of registered Rohingya refugees. Because there is hope that the children will return to Myanmar one day, Burmese is taught so they can continue their studies there.
Meanwhile, the Bangladesh government does not focus on education for Rohingya refugees, according to a government official.
“Our target is to repatriate them as soon as possible. The government has no other plan,” said the official who asked to remain anonymous. “So the government will not recognize as refugees the Rohingya entering Bangladesh now.”
Educational opportunities are lacking in the country the Rohingya were forced to flee. The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.
“In Myanmar, the Rohingya children do not get education provided by the government. With payment, the children are educated,” Ahmed Kabir, a resident of an unregistered refugee camp in Leda, told BenarNews.
A BenarNews correspondent visited Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar in January and spoke to children and parents about schools.
Some Rohingya refugees who have lived in Bangladesh for years send their children to local schools by concealing their identity. Faruk, a grade three student, was spotted writing in a classroom in a Leda camp.
“He has been very passionate about education since his early years. He has been a good student. We have been living here for 18 years, so we can avail this opportunity,” his mother told BenarNews on the condition of anonymity.
Burden for two countries
Kazi Reazul Haque, chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, outlined a major barrier for local schooling.
“Language is associated with education, so ensuring education for these children is difficult. This is because they are here temporarily,” Haque told BenarNews.
Another educator called for technical training.
“These uneducated children would not be able to make a skilled and productive generation even if they are repatriated to Myanmar. In that case, they may get back to Bangladesh as irregular laborers,” professor C.R. Abrar, a founder of the Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Unit, a private think-tank, told BenarNews.
“Keeping this factor in mind, they should be provided with technical education with the support from international agencies.”