Remembering Rohingya refugees on Universal Children’s Day

Nov 19, 2018
By Brett Tarver

It’s getting cold in Canada, but I haven’t forgotten the scorching heat in the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh. I was there just last month with World Vision to see how Canadian funds are making a difference for the Rohingya people.

A group of Rohingya children smiling and waving
Still smiling in difficult circumstances. Friendly Rohingya children gather to say hello. Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Brett Tarver

My takeaway from the trip is that even in the most difficult and complex situations, positive change can happen. As Canadians, we shouldn’t view the toughest, most brutal places with despair or even apathy. We can distance ourselves from doubt and take action to inject real hope.

What life is like in the camp

More than a year after fleeing violence in Myanmar, nearly one million refugees—half of them children—continue to live in conditions that would shock and horrify most of us. The sheer scale of the camps is overwhelming. Hill after hill of makeshift bamboo-and-tarp shelters stretch out in all directions as far as the eye can see. Walking through the tight, twisting alleyways between the dwellings, you quickly feel the sheer weight of humanity, competing for foot space with throngs of people while dodging ditches flowing with sewage.

A boy stands in Cox's Bazar Bangladesh
A young boy standing in the crowded, twisting alleys of the Rohingya refugee camp. Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Brett Tarver

Humanitarian agencies are making a significant difference, but this continues to be one of the most miserable place to live in the world, falling below nearly every accepted minimum standard. Refugees barely have enough space to lie down in their shelters, their health is continually at risk from disease and malnutrition and there are few opportunities for the dignity provided by work or education.

To make matters worse, their hillside shelters are extremely vulnerable to life-threatening seasonal monsoon rains and cyclones that are common in this area of Bangladesh. Under these stressful conditions, children’s rights are being compromised by the risk of violence, trafficking and early marriage.

Caught between nations

Recently, the issue of Rohingya repatriation became international news. The governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to send thousands of refugees back home despite the United Nations repeatedly stating that conditions in Myanmar are not conducive to their safe return. Facing the threat of forcible repatriation, many families went into hiding, while others protested as Canada and the international community voiced strong concerns.

Even with the desperate living conditions in the camps, the Rohingya are too terrified to go back to Myanmar. The refugees I spoke to all had family and friends killed in the violence. They described being hunted after their homes and villages were burnt to the ground. That’s why they are refusing to go back without stronger assurances that any repatriation will be safe, voluntary and done in a dignified way.

Thankfully, the Government of Bangladesh has honoured its long-standing commitment not to return any Rohingya refugees to Myanmar against their will. Canada defended the refugees on this repatriation issue and has consistently supported their rights since the crisis began. Our parliament demonstrated global leadership by recognizing the crimes committed against Rohingya Muslims to be genocide.

Canada’s role

In addition to advocating for refugees, Canadian funding is improving the health and well-being of thousands of refugee families. I saw that funding in action during my visit to one of the World Vision child-friendly spaces funded by Canada. These centres are a true oasis for refugee children where they can play, learn and understand their rights. Watching the children’s excited, smiling faces as they drew pictures, sang and danced, I quickly forgot the harsh conditions outside. Here, children can be children again.

A group of Rohingya girls at a Child-Friendly Space in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh
Rohingya refugee girls enjoying activities at a Government of Canada funded, World Vision Child Friendly Space. Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Brett Tarver

The child-friendly spaces are safe places where children can slowly heal emotionally. During my visit, I noticed several children drawing people with guns shooting villagers. In this environment, they can process what has happened to them, and get the psychosocial care they need.

A Rohingya boy holds up a drawing of the violence he encountered in Myanmar
A Rohingya refugee boy shares his drawing at a Government of Canada funded, World Vision Child Friendly Space. The centre provides psychosocial support for children. Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Brett Tarver

I was dismayed to learn that the families of several children I met were listed to be returned to Myanmar. They told our staff that they were terrified. One girl shared that her sister drowned while crossing a river during her family’s journey into Bangladesh. She worried that the same would happen to her if she was forced to return. I'm thankful that she now has a temporary reprieve from her worst fears.

A place of peace

In the centres, children feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and fears with trusted World Vision staff who are trained to provide psychosocial care. Support for these Canadian-funded centres must continue to ensure that children are protected physically and emotionally and learn their rights. These efforts can help prevent a lost generation of Rohingya children.

A little Rohingya boy with food aid
Mohammad, three, holding a package of fortified cereal at a World Vision nutrition centre. Mohammad is no longer malnourished thanks after a few months on the program. Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Brett Tarver

Reflecting on my short time in the refugee camps, I’m proud of what Canadians and our government are doing to protect the rights of the world’s most vulnerable children. Today, on Universal Children’s Day—and every day in between—let’s not forget these children and remember that together we can help provide hope for a better future.

A group of Rohingya girls in front of a Canadian flagRohingya refugee girls at a Government of Canada funded, World Vision Child Friendly Space, with a hand-drawn Canadian flag. Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Brett Tarver​