Stephan Uttom in Cox’s Bazar and Rock Rozario in Dhaka
Updated: April 16, 2019 04:20 AM GMT
Rohingya children study at a makeshift center in Kutupalong refugee camp on Dec. 6, 2017. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Abdul Noor, 16, was jubilant at being accepted by Leda High School in Teknaf of Southeast Bangladesh's now world-famous Cox's Bazar, home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees living in makeshift camps.
"None of my brothers got past primary school," said Noor, the youngest of five sons of a Rohingya couple who fled persecution by the military and radical Buddhists in Maungdaw town of Myanmar's Rakhine State in 1992.
"But I made it to secondary school, so now I can dream of a better life than my parents and siblings," added the teenager, who was born and grew up in a refugee camp in the district, which is experiencing a growing backlash against the Rohingya as their numbers swell.
However, his dream hit hard a rocky patch in March after local authorities issued a directive to officials and schools in the district barring children without Bangladeshi citizenship from attending state schools there.
"During class about a month ago, our headmaster summoned six Rohingya students, including me, to his office and informed us that we should not come to school anymore," Noor recalled.
"He said the government had ordered schools not to admit Rohingya children. Since then, I had no choice but to stop going."
Jamal Uddin, the headmaster of Leda High School, said his hands were also tied.
"At the end of February, we received a letter stating that Rohingya children should go to ‘their own schools' in the camps, not Bangladeshi schools," he told ucanews.com.
"We identified 60 Rohingya students in various classes and asked them not to come to school anymore, but they were not officially expelled as we didn't issue a transfer certificate [TC]," added Uddin, who is also a Muslim.
"We have to follow the government's order," he said. "So we won't be accepting any more Rohingya students until that directive is revoked."
Anandamoy Bhowmick, an education officer in Teknaf, said there had not been any official order to expel Rohingya students but admitted there was a policy of "discouraging" them from pursuing a secondary education "as they are not citizens of this country."
"However, we know some local government officials have been helping Rohingya parents get fake Bangladeshi documents so they can still enroll their kids in local schools," Bhowmick said.
A Rohingya child sells dry fish at the same refugee camp in this 2014 file photo. Most of the kids at the Rohingya camps do not receive any formal schooling due to a lack of facilities and opportunities. The recent ban on them attending regular schools exacerbated matters. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Stateless and deprived of an education
Noor's parents settled in Leda camp as undocumented refugees after failing to enlist as official refugees in two other camps in Kutupalong and Nayapara of Cox's Bazar, both of which are co-administered by the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the local government.
In 1992, the UNHCR granted official refugee status to some 30,000 Rohingya who refused to return to home fearing persecution, allowing them to receive aid for their daily needs and survival.
Thousands more settled in informal camps with notoriously squalid conditions that sprang up near the official camps.
They are among the more than 200,000 Rohingya Muslims who moved to Bangladesh to escape abuse and violence in Myanmar in recent decades.
This is in addition to the estimated 740,000 Rohingya who flocked to the country amid renewed military crackdowns in neighboring Myanmar in 2016 and 2017.
An informal primary-level education is available at the government-sanctioned refugee camps, but it is scarce at unregistered ones like in Leda.
As a result, most parents send their children to madrasas either in or near the camps to receive a religious education.
The fortunate few, like Noor, get to attend schools run by aid groups, largely against the will of the authorities, that offer a more rounded education.
Due to their stateless nature, the Rohingya have been a thorn in the side of Bangladesh and Myanmar for decades.
This Muslim sub-sect lived in the Arakan Kingdom, an independent territory, for centuries before it was annexed by Burma (since renamed Myanmar) following an invasion by the Burmese in 1784.
The British colonized the country in 1824, and what was formerly known as Arakan is now Rakhine State — a long sliver of land that occupies most of the coastline on Myanmar's western edge on the Bay of Bengal.
Since the 1970s, successive military governments started branding the Rohingya as illegal Bengali interlopers from Bangladesh.
The group officially became stateless in 1982, when Myanmar's military amended the citizenship law and excluded them from a list of about 135 ethnic groups in the country.
This denied the Rohingya access to all kinds of basic rights including food, health, education, and employment.
In the decades that followed, they have trickled into Bangladesh, where many see them as unwelcome guests.
Prior to the massive influx of refugees to Cox's Bazar in 2017, both the official stance from Dhaka and public opinion were against the Rohingya. They were billed as a security threat and a financial and resource-gobbling burden for this overpopulated and impoverished South Asian country.
A Rohingya girl heads to a religious school to study the Quran at Leda refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh in this Dec. 6, 2012 file photo. Dhaka recently issued an order to expel Rohingya students from schools, triggering criticism form rights activists. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com).
The Rohingya were often denied entry to the country, where they faced harassment and the prospect of jail. With the exception of registered refugees, the government discouraged aid groups from operating at the non-sanctioned Rohingya camps that started springing up.
Their fortunes have since reversed, at least to some degree, as international sympathy has been showered on their plight and Bangladesh cast in the role of savior, fending off a brutal Myanmar military and providing them with shelter.
For the last two years, the country has been working on a plan to relocate the refugees on a voluntary basis to a remote island about a nine-hour drive from the camps.
However, critics of the plan say Thengar Char near Hatiya Island in the Bay of Bengal is uninhabited and flood prone, and that sending them there is merely an attempt to prevent them from "intermingling with Bangladeshi citizens."
Expulsion triggers criticism
The recent decision to expel Rohingya students has sparked an outcry from rights activists. On April 1, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement slamming the move.
"The Bangladeshi government's policy of tracking down and expelling Rohingya refugee students instead of ensuring their right to education is misguided, tragic, and unlawful," said Bill Van Esveld, a senior researcher of children's rights.
"Education is a basic human right. The solution to children feeling compelled to falsify their identities to go to secondary school isn't to expel them, but to let them get the education they deserve."
Bangladesh is a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), which guarantee children's rights to free primary education, available and accessible secondary education, and higher education on the basis of capacity, regardless of their immigration or refugee status, HRW noted.
Jyoti F. Gomes, secretary of the Bangladesh Catholic Education Board, has voiced similar concerns.
"On humanitarian grounds, it is saddening and inhumane to deprive Rohingya children of an education. Bangladesh is a signatory to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, so this move goes against state policy," Gomes told ucanews.com.
Moreover, barring them from schools leaves them more vulnerable to engaging in criminal activity, which would produce worse results for society and the government, he added.