A city-sized refugee camp with even bigger child protection challenges

Nusrat Jahan,19, watches over Rohingya children attending a UNICEF-supported child-friendly space in Kutupalong makeshift settlement for Rohingya refugees in Ukhiya, a sub-district of Cox's Bazar District, Bangladesh. Photo by: Patrick Brown / UNICEF

BANGKOK — Child-focused spaces on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border will number more than 1,500 in the coming year as UNICEF and nongovernmental organizations race to respond to the needs of an unprecedented concentration of refugee children.

Mobile safe spaces and learning centers even in the thousands, however, are likely no match for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya children who have already crossed the border or arrived by sea to Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district in the past six weeks. More than 300,000 children have arrived already, and the population continues to grow daily by the thousands. The rising numbers will exacerbate the challenge of responding to immediate humanitarian needs, as well as of protecting children from exploitation and abuse in the coming months, especially as groups with short-term budgets exit the area following initial response, according to actors on the ground.

Half a million Rohingya have fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine state to Bangladesh since late August, joining an estimated 300,000 already living in camps in the area. The exodus began when Rohingya militants attacked police posts and the Myanmar army responded with a violent and protracted crackdown. Since then, Rohingya have continued to flee from brutal attacks, razed villages and sexual violence, reportedly at the hands of the Myanmar police and military.

Nearly 60 percent of the 520,000 Rohingya who have fled Myanmar are children — add women and the percentage climbs to more than 70, according to NGO Children on the Edge. Most of them are now living in squalid conditions in 20-plus makeshift camps and settlements so sprawling they are equivalent to the size of 889 football fields.

Save the Children currently has 50 staff members on the ground throughout Cox’s Bazar, up from 12 prior to the mass refugee arrival. By the end of the year, they look to have 800 staff, including through partners. The more than 6,000 percent increase in staff will be tasked with helping a population of refugees that has exceeded that of Australia’s capital of Canberra. The combined population of new arrivals with pre-existing Rohingya camps — more than 800,000 — will soon be larger than the population of San Francisco.

Finding space for children

Unsurprisingly, it is still “coming back to basics,” Save the Children’s Global Humanitarian Communications Manager Kyle Degraw said of the INGO’s food distribution program and focus on meeting basic needs such as water, shelter and sanitation for such an overwhelmingly large group of exhausted, malnourished people, many of whom journeyed more than eight days to reach the border.

Unlike in many refugee situations, there are fewer unaccompanied minors than one might expect. UNICEF has recorded 1,675 unaccompanied minors as of October 10, though this is likely an underestimation.

“In this case, the border is a little more remote, and the nature of that isolation has been that the majority of children have crossed with some sort of support network — whether a neighbor or guardian,” said a Children on the Edge spokesperson, who asked not to be named for fear of jeopardizing access to the camps. “We’re not finding the numbers of separated children like we’ve seen in Kachin, for example,” he said, referencing ongoing conflict in Myanmar’s northernmost state.

The United Nations Refugee Agency and UNICEF have mobilized community support groups of women and youth in the refugee camps to reach out to vulnerable children. UNHCR is also working with partners to trace family members where possible, and to assess options ranging from reunification with close relatives to appointing guardians or foster families who can offer care and guidance.

But women and children remain vulnerable, with many still “sleeping under open skies, roadsides, and forest areas with little or no protection,” said Paolo Lubrano, Oxfam's humanitarian coordinator in Bangladesh, in a September 28 release.

The first order of child protection is to establish safe spaces available to all children — which Save the Children is doing “as fast as we can,” Degraw said of the designated spaces where parents or guardians can send the young while they report to receive food or look for a new space to erect a shelter.

Save the Children currently has 40 mobile child-friendly spaces set up in the area, “though it’s difficult to find space,” he told Devex. “Any flat land you find is usually a rice field.”

UNICEF is facing the same challenge, having just established three more learning centers “on top of hills” in the difficult-to-reach Unchiprang camp, according to Sakil Faizullah, communications manager for UNICEF in Bangladesh. The agency is currently running 182 learning centers in Rohingya camps and makeshift settlements throughout Cox’s Bazar, and has enrolled 15,000 children. It plans to increase the number of centers to 1,500 in the coming year in order to reach 200,000 children.

When asked whether it would be possible to identify space for such a high number of centers, Faizullah replied with an emphatic yes, suggesting that teams will need to continue to be resourceful in deciding what space can be utilized for children.

Children attending Save the Children and UNICEF-run centers will be taught math, science, English, and Burmese language. For many, it will be the first time in their life they have attended school.

“Normally we might adapt the local curriculum, but that’s not going to work in this case because they’ve never been subject to any sort of curriculum,” Degraw said. The Rohingya minority is not recognized in Rakhine state and have seen access to school and formal employment cut off.

While protection concerns are “evident and growing,” Degraw said, the Save the Children team is also increasingly concerned about the health situation in the makeshift settlements, many still without latrines and clean water points. Children in particular are vulnerable to cholera, which can sweep through the unsanitary camps and take lives very quickly.

In response, the World Health Organization, in partnership with UNICEF and the Bangladesh Ministry of Health, launched on Tuesday the second-largest oral vaccination campaign in history — trailing only Haiti’s 2016 cholera vaccination campaign. Two hundred mobile vaccination teams aim to deliver cholera vaccinations to 650,000 people initially, followed by a second round to 250,000 children between the ages of one and five.

Since August, WHO has also helped plan and implement a measles, rubella and polio campaign that has provided protection to more than 100,000 children.

The risks of a mobile population

Child protection officers and health brigades face similar challenges when it comes to refugee mobility. It is the current movement of people, Degraw said, that is making overall response particularly difficult.

“Our child protection officers do regular assessments of new camps that have sprung up, they get to know the families a bit, track movements, they’re nimble on the ground to keep an eye on whether children are left in a more vulnerable situation,” Degraw said. “But the fact that they’re then moving around to different settlements in order to find more space or more services, it’s difficult to plan for that kind of movement.”

According to the spokesperson for Children on the Edge, it is ongoing mobility that will continue to put children at risk.

“You have 500,000 people on that border — in remote areas, with limited access to jobs, livelihoods, and education — who don’t want to be there,” the spokesperson told Devex. “They’ll stay there as long as WFP will hand them a daily food ration and as long as UNICEF can provide some sort of education, but then you’re going to see a bleeding of those people into other communities.”

That, the NGO spokesperson said, is when children become far more vulnerable to trafficking, sexual exploitation and child marriage: “They can’t vote, hold office, go to university … when they do flee to other areas, they’re easily taken advantage of.”

With scant hope for a mass return of Rohingya to Myanmar, meanwhile, the spokesperson for Children on the Edge said the group is concerned about access to ongoing support in the coming months and years.

“Yes we want people to respond now, yes this is a humanitarian crisis, yes this is ethnic cleansing,” the spokesperson told Devex. “Our primary concern is January, February, and March when a lot of the agencies that have a mandate [in Cox’s Bazar] now start to pull back.”

The NGO staffer estimates that “this crisis will have another chapter” when agencies with 90-day or six-month budgets begin to pull out, especially considering how many questions remain about what is happening in Rakhine state, where access has been restricted. “Something everyone who is engaged on the border is asking is ‘where are the men?’ Anecdotally we know that a lot of people were separated and a lot of men were detained, but we don’t actually know. When we have access, what will we find?”

What the spokesperson does know is that the numbers of refugees fleeing to Bangladesh will continue to increase while many agencies pull back, and “If these children aren’t cared for, you’re going see a huge portion become vulnerable, become radicalized, a huge portion become lost. Twenty years from now, where are these people, where are these children? We have to think about that now.”

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.