The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has reiterated that the principle of non-discrimination extends to all persons of school age residing in the territory of a state party, including non-nationals, and irrespective of their legal status.
AT THE end of April 2018, I travelled to Bangladesh as part of a field mission that my organisation, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), organised to assess the conditions of Rohingya in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district, along the border with Myanmar. More than 8,00,000 Rohingyas, men, women, and children, have been forced to seek refuge in Bangladesh following indiscriminate attacks by Myanmar security forces in northern Rakhine State since October 2016.
Two aspects of the camps that immediately struck me were their size and the ubiquitous presence of children. The main camp, the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Site at Ukhia, in reality, represents a collection of more than 20 adjacent camps with a total population of more than 6,20,000 Rohingya refugees. It is now the world’s largest refugee camp.
Children account for more than half of the Rohingya refugees in camps in Cox’s Bazar and their number is set to increase sharply. The United Nations estimated that 25,000 babies would be born in May–June in the refugee camps — many as a result of rape of Rohingya women committed by members of Myanmar’s security forces during the latest wave of attacks that began at the end of August 2017.
The prospects for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya children in the camps look bleak. The overwhelming majority of Rohingya refugees are unregistered and Bangladesh is not — and does not intend to become — a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. This means that Rohingya refugees lack legal status and, as a result, are deprived of the rights guaranteed by the convention, including the right to education.
Unregistered Rohingya refugee children can only receive informal education provided by NGOs in the camps. They are not permitted to enrol in formal education facilities (ie government-accredited schools) and are not allowed to sit Primary Education Completion examinations, which would allow them to pursue further educational opportunities.
The Bangladeshi government’s lack of commitment to recognise the right of Rohingya refugees to education is not new. Since 2009, the Bangladeshi government has repeatedly ignored recommendations made by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to provide unregistered Rohingya refugee children with access to education. More recently, during its third Universal Periodic Review in May 2018, the Bangladeshi government did not accept a recommendation that called on Dhaka to ensure that ‘children among the refugees have effective access to the right to education.’
This lack of commitment is consistent with the Bangladeshi government’s stance that it is not willing to create the conditions that will allow Rohingya refugees to remain in Bangladesh permanently. In late May 2018, Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina reiterated that she wanted Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar ‘as early as possible.’ However, if Rohingya repatriations are to be voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable, it is unlikely that most Rohingya refugee will return to Rakhine State any time soon. This is because of the Myanmar’s government ongoing refusal to grant Rohingya citizenship, lift the numerous restrictions to which they are subjected, and establish accountability for past human rights violations. This means that hundreds of thousands of school-age Rohingya refugee children could remain in Bangladesh for many years to come.
Regardless of Dhaka’s position on how long Rohingya refugees should remain in Bangladesh, the Bangladesh government has an obligation to guarantee the right to education of Rohingya refugee children, in accordance with international human rights treaties to which it is a state party, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The ICESCR imposes on Bangladesh an obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil ‘the right of everyone to education.’ It requires Bangladesh to guarantee that the right to education is ‘exercised without discrimination of any kind’, such as discrimination based on race, national origin, birth or other status. Similarly, the CRC guarantees the right of children to education ‘without discrimination of any kind’, and requires Bangladesh to ensure that a child who is seeking refugee status or who is considered a refugee in accordance with applicable international law and procedures receives ‘appropriate humanitarian assistance’ in the enjoyment of the right to education. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has reiterated that the principle of non-discrimination extends to all persons of school age residing in the territory of a state party, including non-nationals, and irrespective of their legal status.
At this critical juncture, it is incumbent on the international community to urge the Bangladesh government to urgently address the issue of the right to education for Rohingya refugee children in line with its international human rights obligations. Failure to do so risks exposing many more Rohingya children to abuse, exploitation, and trafficking.
Andrea Giorgetta is the Asia desk director of FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights).
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