The young and the hopeless in Bangladesh's camps
COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh, January 23 (UNHCR) - For 20 years, they have been given food, water, shelter, health care. But the thing they need most - hope - has proven elusive. And according to the refugee youth in this area bordering western Myanmar, the future is growing dimmer by the day.
Hasan Sharif's family fled Myanmar's Rakhine state in the early 1990s, eventually settling in Kutupalong, one of two government-run refugee camps in south-eastern Bangladesh.
"My parents said that in Myanmar, there is no freedom, no legal movement anywhere," said 16-year-old Hasan. "They felt persecuted as Rohingya and thought that if they stayed, their family and children's future would be damaged. That's when they came to Bangladesh."
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in Rakhine state are stateless because they are not considered to be citizens under Myanmar's nationality law. Before the inter-communal violence of June and October last year, there had been two large-scale exoduses from Myanmar to Bangladesh, in 1978 and 1991-2. Although large numbers returned, the Rohingya continued to face forced labour as well as restrictions on their freedom of movement and the right to marry.
Hasan was born in exile. In fact, nearly three-quarters of the camps' population - over 70 per cent of 30,000 registered refugees - were either born in Bangladesh or arrived when they were under 10 years old. Few have a clear idea of home, often relying on stories told by their elders.
Their reality involves regular distributions of food, clothing and household supplies in the camps. They know that they will get basic water, sanitation and health services. They can study up to Grade 5 in the 21 primary schools in the two camps.
"The registered refugees have everything they need to survive," said Dirk Hebecker, who heads UNHCR's office in Cox's Bazar. "But there is no future and no way to participate in the development of society. We are advocating with the authorities to create more opportunities for them."
Mohammed Islam arrived in Bangladesh when he was seven. Twenty years later, he is the chairman of the camp management committee in Nayapara camp. "I'm worried about the next generation," he said. "The main problem here is that we're deprived of higher education. Education is the breadbasket of a nation, it's necessary for all of society."
The UN refugee agency is unable to provide secondary education in the camps. Local secondary schools outside the camps do not officially admit refugee children, though a few have managed to gain admission informally.
"There are more and more boys like me in the camp," said Hasan. "They don't have anything. They want to get a secondary certificate. They hope to be engineers, pilots, sailors. But if they don't get an opportunity for some education outside of the camp, how can they improve their life?"
Unlike the other boys, Hasan is one step closer to his dream. The aspiring computer engineer is currently working as a trainer in UNHCR's computer centre in Kutupalong camp.
However, the way forward is unclear. The recent outbreak of inter-communal violence in Rakhine state has dashed hopes of voluntary repatriation in the near future. Life in Bangladesh seems unlikely to go beyond survival mode.
Resettlement to a third country has been suspended since late 2010 and the statelessness of the Rohingya, which is the root cause of the waves of displacement, remains unresolved.
Mohammed Islam is also at a loss. "We love our country, it's in our hearts. We want to return, but the situation compels us to stay in Bangladesh," he said. "I want my home. I don't want peace for myself, I want it for my community. I want to be alive with my people."
In addition to the 30,000 registered refugees in Kutupalong and Nayapara camps, there are an estimated 200,000 undocumented Rohingya living outside the camps with little access to humanitarian assistance.
By Vivian Tan in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh