Bangladesh must allow Rohingya-led schools in Cox’s Bazaar

Bangladesh must allow Rohingya-led schools in Cox’s Bazaar

Rohingya refugees gather in an open field at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on Aug. 25, 2019. (Getty
Rohingya refugees gather in an open field at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on Aug. 25, 2019. (Getty
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Amnesty International this week headlined a list of 25 organizations that signed an open letter to the Bangladeshi government asking it to stop its policy of closing down community-led schools in the country’s Rohingya refugee camps. However sympathetic we might be to the motives of the government in Dhaka, it would do well to heed this call. It is surely right for the government to do whatever it can to ease the integration of the Rohingya into Bangladeshi society, but this policy is not a good way to achieve that.

According to the letter, the Bangladeshi authorities have closed down about 30 schools in Cox’s Bazar since last December. And beyond an initial reaction of horror at the idea of closing schools in principle, we can understand why the authorities might be wary of community-led schools.

Without proper oversight and integration with the broader education system of Bangladesh, the education these children receive might be, at best, quite poor quality. Then, if we remember the reason the Rohingya are in the situation they are right now is that the military of Myanmar hated them for their religion, community-led education comes with some risk that these identity factors will be over-emphasized in what the children are taught. This could lead to sectarian radicalization that will make it harder for the Rohingya community overall to integrate into Bangladeshi society in a well-adjusted manner over the longer term.

It is an obvious truism that the future of the Rohingya, as well as the long-term prospects of the community in their new homes in Bangladesh, depends on these very children. It is therefore understandable that the Bangladeshi government would want to make sure the next generation of Rohingya get as much exposure to the broader society of Bangladesh as possible, as well as to services from the Bangladeshi state. But these community schools did not emerge in the refugee camps in order to oppose or challenge the government’s interest in good integration over the long term. The Rohingya themselves have just as much reason to want to become valued members of Bangladeshi society as the government of Bangladesh does.

Even with the best will in the world, Dhaka would struggle to provide these children with this essential education in their cultural heritage

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

The principal reason these schools would have emerged is precisely because the Bangladeshi state, despite its best efforts, will not have managed to provide adequate education to all the children in the camps. Many do attend Bangladeshi schools, but obviously not all of them. Once that dynamic is in place, it will have occurred to the parents and educators in the camp that it is also essential for the long-term survival of the Rohingya as a distinct identity that they should have at least some kind of formal instruction in their own specific history, language, traditions and so on. Even with the best will in the world, the government of Bangladesh would struggle to provide these children with this essential education in their cultural heritage.

Fortunately, the way forward in this situation is not difficult to chart. The best way to proceed for everyone — for Bangladesh, the Rohingya and, above all, the children — is for the community schools to be allowed to continue, but for the Bangladeshi authorities to help them integrate into the country’s broader education system. Thus, essential cultural classes like Rohingya language and literature, Rohingya history and traditions and so on should continue to be delivered by the same Rohingya educators, while Bangladeshi teachers should be sent by the government to join these schools and provide the country’s standard curriculum in science and mathematics, Bengali language and history, and everything else.

In this way, the next generation of Rohingya children will be able to be fully part of both communities. They will have retained their ancestral roots and culture, while also being able to take advantage of any opportunities that life in Bangladesh can afford them, thus becoming valuable members of Bangladeshi society.

The limiting factor, of course, will always be money. The government in Dhaka is already struggling with the fiscal aspect of supporting the refugee community and, in that context, it is almost tragically understandable that they would try to deal with the education question as they have so far. But the government must understand that this approach is both immoral and in the long-term will also be self-defeating.

The right way forward is to try to move in and support the community-led schools and absorb them into Bangladesh’s formal education system. And Dhaka should ask the international community to help with the costs of this. I, for one, will do everything I can to help them secure funding for such an endeavor from the international community, and I also trust that so will every signatory of the open letter.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, D.C. and research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim

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