Mark Pierce & Orla Murphy
Fred Witteveen is a co-author of this article. He is the national director of World Vision Bangladesh.
Do you remember being a child, wide awake at night, breath drawn, every creak and whisper of breeze a monster under the bed, an intruder down the hall? Then as day breaks, childish fear evaporates and the night’s terrors are forgotten.
For hundreds of thousands of children who are right now living in the sprawling refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, fear does not fade when the sun rises. The nights are long. And each day brings a new worry.
Today marks six months since these children were ripped away from the stability of their homes. Six months of trying to make sense of the horrors they have seen and this strange and often scary place.
In the words of a 12-year-old boy: “We live a captive life here. There is not enough space for us to play. We cannot do anything we want to do.”
Almost 60 percent of refugees who’ve arrived in Bangladesh since August 25 are aged under 18, some 378,000 children. Many witnessed brutal violence and killing. Some saw their villages burned to the ground.
More than 2,680 children have been separated from their parents, either orphaned or lost in the chaos of escape from Myanmar. This is a children’s emergency of the highest order.
In December, Plan International, Save the Children and World Vision held a series of in-depth consultations with 200 children and 40 mothers affected by the crisis.
Childhood Interrupted: Voices from the Rohingya Refugee Crisis launches today so we can share their stories to create change. It’s vital we hear what children have to say, because they are most affected by this devastating crisis.
When asked what they need to improve their lives, children were very clear: they want to learn and play, feel safe, eat and live healthily, and for their families to earn an income.
Children told us their worlds have been torn apart. They’ve gone from living in a community where they had close friends, a routine and safe places to play, to a chaotic, overcrowded and frightening place.
Many yearn for their homes and belongings, or grieve for dead or missing relatives. Some miss being warm at night and cool during the day.
The report reveals that fear is endemic, and many children spend their days on high alert. They are particularly fearful of being kidnapped, hearing tales of children who have been snatched in the dark.
We are aware of 32 recorded cases of trafficking in the camps to date, according to the International Organisation for Migration. However, the unrecorded number likely to be much higher. History reminds us that wherever children are caught up in an emergency, those who prey on the vulnerable are often nearby.
Girls told us they are scared to leave their tents to go to the toilet, especially after dark, for fear of being harassed or assaulted.
The nearby forest was also identified as a place to fear. Children reported being afraid to go there to collect firewood, worried that “forest men” would attack them.
An 11-year-old girl told us: “We cannot go to [the] forest at night because it is very risky. There was a girl who was raped when collecting firewood at night.”
And often, children get lost. Even experienced aid workers find these camps overwhelming. There are few directional signs in an endlessly sprawling labyrinth of tarp and bamboo. It is a confusing and massive place for an adult, and must feel infinitely more bewildering and enormous for a child.
Children told us they feel unhealthy and worry about getting sick. They experience diarrhoea, coughs and colds, respiratory problems, eye problems and skin diseases. More than 5,000 cases of diphtheria have been reported, killing 24 children.
Food is a constant worry, too. Families are allocated 25kg of rice every 15 days. Many families reported having to ration. They eat the same meal of rice and lentils, and lack the nutritional variety to have energy and to grow. Children wish they had vegetables, fish and meat like they used to eat back home.
Few children here have access to education, one of the best forms of protection from abuse and exploitation like child labour or trafficking. Children told us they wanted to attend school, to learn and develop skills that will help them in the future.
For an adult, this place is tough. For a child, it is a waking nightmare.
But even in such an overwhelming place, there are small comforts. Children said the call to prayer five times a day helps them feel safe and connected to their host community. They’ve come to trust and even feel comforted by the presence of the Bangladesh military and they told us aid workers are kind to them and help them feel protected.
As we enter the sixth month since this crisis erupted, the priority now is to ensure children are safe and feel free to play, learn and live without fear.When asked what they need to improve their lives, children were very clear: they want to learn and play, feel safe, eat and live healthily, and for their families to earn an income. Some suggested practical improvements like better lighting to make is safer to go to the toilet at night. Some wanted bigger shelters enabling greater privacy. Almost all wanted to go to school.
It’s vital that, in the coming weeks and months, our resolve only strengthens to do more for these children. We cannot fail them. We must hear their voices.