As more than a half-million ethnic Rohingya refugees flee Myanmar into Bangladesh, education that was limited before has come to a standstill, says a Harvard doctoral student who studied the community in the region recently.
Education was scarce for Muslim Rohingya youth before 2012, but the crisis that has forced hundreds of thousands from their homes has shut that door, says Cresa Pugh, a doctoral student in sociology and social policy at Harvard University, who spent her 2017 summer in the Rakhine State.
See our Facebook Live interview with Harvard's Cresa Pugh here.
“Prior to 2012, there was suppression of educational opportunities in Rakhine State, but Rohingya youth still had some opportunities to pursue higher education,” she told VOA in a Facebook Live interview.
“Since the riots, the increased oppression and persecution has meant that the Rohingya in most villages in Northern Rakhine State have restrictions on their freedom of movement, and are therefore unable to advance their studies in university,” Pugh said.
That assessment, which is backed up by international rights groups operating in the region, contradicts the position of Myanmar's government, which maintains Rohingya are provided education opportunities, despite the government's refusal to grant them citizenship.
"All people living in the Rakhine State have access to education and healthcare services without discrimination," said Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a speech on September 19.
Pugh said there is little schooling going on for Rohingya. Some of the United Nations refugee camps offer lessons to younger children, but older children have few or no options to continue their studies.
Refugees like the Rohingya often dream of coming to the U.S. to study, where they feel they will be free of persecution, she said. For Rohingya parents, education of their children is paramount, since many Rohingya adults never receive formal schooling.
Only about 5 percent or fewer Rohingya make it out of the Rakhine to study, said Jessica Marks, co-president of Refugee Center Online, an educational resource based in Portland, Oregon, for worldwide refugees.
“It’s a challenge,” Marks said. “These students and refugees find support in their local communities but often are discriminated against in the U.S. and require ongoing support.”
More than 60 percent of Rohingya children age 5 to 17 have never been to school because of poverty, government restrictions on their movement, and lack of schools, according to the Oxford Burma Alliance, a student-run organization at Oxford University, where Myanmar de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi graduated.
In addition, more than 70 percent of heads of households report having no formal education.
Rohingya students are also not allowed to attend universities in Burma, Pugh said. Some Rohingya communities have started mosques and religious schools in their villages. Where they have fled to Bangladesh, the government does not permit secondary schools in refugee camps. International aid organizations are working to increase education for Rohingya in camps. These schools have about equal enrollment of male and female students, according to the Oxford Burma Alliance.
The Muslim Rohingya minority first settled in the Rahkine part of Myanmar, then known Burma, as descendants of laborers who worked there during the British occupation of India and Bangladesh. After Myanmar's independence from India in 1948, it declared the Rohingya migration illegal.
Tensions restarted in 2012 and have risen in recent months. Rights groups allege Myanmar's military and local non-Rohingya villagers have attacked Rohingya settlements, killing hundreds and sending hundreds of thousands of others fleeing into Bangladesh.