Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh dream of return

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh dream of return

At his school in a refugee camp, Muhammad Yusuf every morning repeats the national anthem of Myanmar, from which his family was forced to flee after thousands of his ethnicity were killed in a brutal crackdown by the Myanmar army on August 25 five years ago. Muhammad, 15, is one of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled to Bangladesh after that campaign.

For nearly five years, he, along with a large number of other refugee children living in overcrowded camps, has received little education, while Dhaka fears that the Rohingya will not return any time soon.

But the prospects for return seem more remote than at any time since the military coup in Myanmar last year. And last month, the authorities finally allowed the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to expand its study programs to include 130,000 children, all the way to residing in the camps. But the host country is still seeking to return the refugees. Accordingly, the Myanmar language is used in the educational process, schools follow the Myanmar curriculum, and the school day begins every morning with the Myanmar national anthem.

For a long time, some in Myanmar viewed the Rohingya with contempt, considering them to be foreigners. Buddhists form the majority in Myanmar, where the highest international court accuses the government of trying to eradicate the minority. Nevertheless, Mohammed sings the anthem enthusiastically, seeing it as a symbol of defiance and future return. He says: “Myanmar is my patriot… the country itself has not done us any harm, the people in it are the ones who did it. My sister died there and our people were massacred.” “However, it is my country and I will love it to the end,” he continued.

Deprivation of education for years is one of the tragedies facing refugees in Bangladesh, some of whom have been relocated to a remote, flood-prone and previously uninhabited island. “These curricula remind them that they belong to Myanmar, to which they will return one day,” says Deputy Commissioner for Refugees Shamsud Doza. But it is still unclear when this will happen.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said during a visit this month that conditions were “not conducive to return”.

She added that the refugees could only be returned “under safe and sustainable conditions in Myanmar”.

While he ruled out the possibility of Rohingya camps turning into a “new Gaza,” Dhaka is now more aware of the dangers that may result from a large community of disenfranchised refugees staying on its territory for a long time.

About 50% of the people residing in the camps are under 18 years old. The government “thought that educating the Rohingya would give a signal to Myanmar that Bangladesh would eventually absorb the Muslim minority on its soil,” says Mahfuzur Rahman, a former general from Bangladesh who held a post when the Rohingya fled. Today, however, Dhaka realizes that it needs a longer-term plan, he said, perhaps most importantly because of the danger of a generation of uneducated youth in the camps.

Security in the camps is a major problem, with criminal gangs smuggling amphetamines across the border. During the last five years, there have been more than 100 killings. Rebel armed groups are also active, who have killed dozens of leading figures within the Rohingya community, and are always looking for bored young people. Young people, with a bleak future ahead, are a prime target of people smugglers, who promise to take them by boat to a better life elsewhere.

There are concerns that Bangladesh might change its mind and suspend the education project, as it did with a program of private schools educating more than 30,000 children in the camps earlier this year. With little prospects of return, the Myanmar curriculum has not been of much help, according to Mujibullah, a leader of the Rohingya diaspora who now resides in Australia. He says, “If we do not go back to our homeland, why should we receive our education in Myanmar? This waste of time is like a mass suicide. We have lost five years so far, and we need international curricula in English.”

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