Denying Rohingya access to education a catastrophic mistake

Denying Rohingya access to education a catastrophic mistake

Denying Rohingya access to education a catastrophic mistake
Rohingya refugees rally in demand of repatriation at Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, June 19, 2022. (AFP)
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Following earlier reports that the authorities of Bangladesh were closing down Rohingya-run community schools in the camps in Cox’s Bazar, Rohingyas are now facing further curbs on access to education, as well as increased controls on movement within the camps and on ad hoc economic activity. This leaves international observers increasingly worried about both the effects of these policies and their intention.
The Dhaka government must be given its due: Bangladesh was the only country that took in the 1 million-plus refugees in the good spirit of neighborly generosity that was envisioned by the authors of the 1951 Refugee Convention and it has hosted a huge group of destitute people as well as can be expected of a country that itself is poor and struggles to meet the needs of its own citizens. In many ways, the welcome Rohingyas have received in Bangladesh puts to shame the ways in which refugees are treated in European countries or in the US.
But it is a worrying trend that, over the past year or so, the Bangladeshi government has increasingly taken measures that appear to run counter to that initial welcome. And some international observers are starting to worry that what at first appeared to be thoughtless policy mistakes may actually hint at a shift in the government’s attitude toward the Rohingya situation overall.
When the authorities banned home schooling and private education in the camps — and also closed down some of the Rohingya-run community schools in Cox’s Bazar — the rationale that they were concerned about the possible dissemination of Islamist teachings was plausible, regardless of how some of us felt about the balance of probabilities and harms.
That the authorities would want to keep an eye on how people move around the camps and how they might be interacting with neighboring communities is also understandable. It is in everyone’s interest that law and order be maintained in and around the camps and, in order to be able to do that, the authorities must know what is happening in these communities.
But the children in the camps have not been able to access education of equal quality and quantity since those initial school closures, while basic corner shops and other grassroots economic initiatives have also been closed down and the authorities are increasingly not only monitoring the movement of people, but also actively limiting it. There is a genuine creeping sense that the refugee camps are resembling less the welcoming environment of the early days of the crisis and increasingly the closed-down de facto prison camps that the Rohingya found themselves in while in Myanmar.
We are not yet at the point where we can unequivocally infer that the Bangladeshi authorities have given up on the sentiments of humaneness with which they initially welcomed the refugees. But there is a feeling among both the refugees themselves and among international observers that the authorities are increasingly prioritizing their own expedience over the needs of this vulnerable community, especially as it becomes increasingly clear that the Rohingya will likely have to remain in the country permanently.
If this is indeed what is happening, it cannot be stressed enough: This is a disastrous mistake. It is precisely because the Rohingya are unlikely to be able to return to Myanmar any time soon that it is both in their interest and in the long-term interest of Bangladesh that the refugee community be welcomed and absorbed as a normal part of the social and economic fabric of Bangladesh.

There is a feeling that Bangladesh is increasingly prioritizing its own expedience over the needs of this vulnerable community.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

The more the Rohingya are treated like a problem that needs to be contained and managed, the more they will become a problem and a burden on the resources of Bangladesh. Conversely, the more they are treated like a normal community and allowed and supported to thrive on their own terms, the more likely they are to become a genuine asset to Bangladesh overall in the medium to long term.
With their current behavior, the authorities in Bangladesh are drifting toward a darker future for everyone. But it is not too late to correct course and instead create a hopeful future that will be a win-win for everyone.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, DC. Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim
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