KUALA LUMPUR - Bangladesh is risking a "lost generation" by blocking international efforts to improve on the meager education available to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says in a new report.
"Are We Not Human?" – released Tuesday, warns that the policy affecting some 400,000 children could backfire on Bangladesh by making the refugees all the more reliant on aid and vulnerable to criminal gangs.
More than 1 million ethnic Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh from neighboring Myanmar, where they have faced decades of persecution. Most of them arrived in late 2017, when Myanmar's security forces allegedly unleashed a campaign of arson, rape and murder on Rohingya communities across northern Rakhine state.
Bangladesh has earned praise for taking them in.
But by barring the children from local public schools and refusing to let charities teach certified curricula inside the refugee camps, HRW says, Bangladesh has left them with little more than ad hoc classes in ramshackle facilities often taught by unqualified instructors. Without accredited coursework, they won't be able to use what little they do learn to transition into a proper school system if and when they leave.
Bill Van Esveld, HRW's associate children's rights director, said the policy amounted to "human rights abuse on a massive scale" by raising the odds that the refugees will fall victim to criminals or turn to crime.
"Rohingya people have said this to me: If the kids have no access to a better future, if they have no access to education, what are the alternatives? Despair, which leads to being prey to human trafficking ...criminality, and being prey to radicalization," he told VOA. "The less you know, the easier prey you are to people who want to exploit you."
HRW says the policy also flouts Bangladesh's obligations to provide refugees with quality and inclusive education under the U.N. treaties it has signed, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Global Compact on Refugees.
The office of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina referred all questions to her press secretary, Ihsanul Karim, who was out of the country and did not reply to multiple requests for an interview.
Officially, the government is operating under the assumption that the refugees will be heading back to Myanmar soon; but, more than two years after the last mass exodus, the U.N. says Myanmar is still too risky for the Rohingya. The refugees themselves have rejected offers to return to a country they call home but mostly continues to deny them citizenship. The prospects of an imminent return look remote at best.
Van Esveld said Bangladesh was also acting under the fear that the refugees were taking low-wage jobs from locals and driving up crime.
"That's common in every country I've worked on, and not always related to fact," he said of the stigma that often sticks to refugees. "But the other thing is that denying kids an education really helps to make this a self-fulfilling prophecy...Deprive a whole generation of kids of access to education and, you know, you are going to certainly make that stigma worse."
Mohammad Noor, a Rohingya rights advocate, and a Rohingya himself, said Bangladesh has been denying the refugees a quality education for decades and that many of those who arrived as children in the 1990s were now adults who could not read or write as a result.
Noor said he was supporting three schools in the refugee camps teaching English and Rohingya to students between the ages of 8 and 22, and that many feel frustrated by the limitations.
"They want to study but cannot get an education, which is...the only thing for us to get some decent exposure or a better generation," said Noor, who is also behind the Rohingya Project, an initiative to give stateless Rohingya a digital identity, and Rohingya Vision TV, an online news outlet produced by and for the Rohingya diaspora.
Noor said he thought of the refugee camps in Bangladesh as a "pressure cooker" and agreed that policies impeding education only added to the tension. He has not seen any radicalization yet, but feared it could come with time if the government held its course.
"We all fear that some people will come and tell them...this is a horrible life, so we better resist, we better do this. So it is definitely a concern," he said.
HRW says the countries and charities helping Bangladesh support the refugees with their cash should be trying harder to convince the government to lift its curbs on educating them, but have been reticent to do so at the risk of offending the host.
Van Esveld said their best chance was to offer Bangladesh a "win-win" by urging the government to lift the curbs while also pledging more support of its overstretched local schools around the camps.
"If you don't let Rohingya kids get educated, what are they left with? Are they going to be forced into dependency on fickle humanitarian handouts for years to come? I don't know what the other alternative would be," he said.
"So this is not just a Rohingya kids problem, it's Bangladesh's problem, and it's ultimately a problem for the international community. So I think that...they need to get over their excessive caution and, you know, step up and be vocal, but to do so in a responsible way."