Bangladesh is deliberately blocking Rohingya refugee children from education, report says

Rohingya are seen during a rainstorm at the Nayapara refugee camp on August 21, 2019 in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

Rohingya refugee children living in a sprawling network of camps in Bangladesh are being denied access to education in a deliberate effort by authorities to prevent them from integrating with local communities, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch released on Tuesday.

The camps, located in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district, are home to as many as 1 million displaced people -- the largest such refugee settlement in the world. The bulk of that population are 740,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar military from August 2017.

While Myanmar has long claimed to have been targeting terrorists, the atrocities have been described as genocide by a UN fact-finding commission.

The release of the report, titled, "Are We Not Human?" shines a light on the difficulties faced by the camp's some 400,000 school-age Rohingya children, who without proper education, will be left more vulnerable to abuse, crime and poverty.

"Bangladesh has made it clear that it doesn't want the Rohingya to remain indefinitely, but depriving children of education just compounds the harm to the children and won't resolve the refugees' plight any faster," said Bill Van Esveld, associate children's rights director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report, in a statement.

"The government of Bangladesh saved countless lives by opening its borders and providing refuge to the Rohingya, but it needs to end its misguided policy of blocking education for Rohingya children," Van Esveld continued.

Researchers spoke to 163 Rohingya children, parents, and teachers, as well as government official, aid groups and United Nations agencies in February 2019.

According to the 81-page report, the Bangladeshi government has barred UN humanitarian agencies and NGOs from providing children in the camps with any formal or accredited education.

In addition to being denied access to education inside the camps, the report alleges that Rohingya refugee children are also prohibited from leaving the camps to attend the local schools, and cannot take national school examinations.

For the refugee children, "who have already lost more than two years of schooling, there is no prospect of formal, recognized, quality education," the report said.

"Children deprived of education are at increased risk of child labor and child marriage, of being trapped in poverty, and of being unable to fully participate in their societies," it continued.

The Bangladeshi government has refuted the report, however, reiterating its years-long support for Rohingya refugees.

Speaking to CNN, Bangladeshi Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner, Md. Mahbub Alam Talukder said that the government was not "blocking anything" and the authorities were providing continued support.

"We have given them shelter and we are taking care of them. We are taking care of them properly. There is no sort of negligence," Talukder said.

The Human Rights Watch report comes just over a week before Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi will personally defend her government against genocide charges at the UN's highest court, the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

'Policy of deliberate deprivation'

The reasons for the restrictions on education are not down to a lack of resources, Human Rights Watch said.

The group alleges Bangladesh is embarking on a "policy of deliberate deprivation of education in pursuit of its efforts to prevent the refugees from integrating."

In doing so, the government is "violating its international obligations by denying refugee children a formal, certified education; secondary-school-level education; access to Bangladeshi schools outside the camps; instruction in the Bengali language; and adequate school buildings."

In November 2017, Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to a plan to return the Rohingya refugees, but attempts at repatriation have failed.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and other humanitarian groups have repeatedly said conditions are not yet right for safe and voluntary return of Rohingya to Myanmar.

In an effort to fill the education gap, aid groups have constructed hundreds of learning centers -- temporary structures that hold up to 40 children. But these are insufficient to accommodate the needs of the thousands of refugee children, the report said.

The UN children's fund, UNICEF, along with other education providers, is also creating an informal curriculum "from scratch" but progress is being held up by government inaction and the centers are banned from providing the children with a certified education, according to Human Rights Watch.

"As of August 2019, the government had only approved the first two 'levels,' which are intended to take a student from kindergarten up to the equivalent of the second year of primary school," the report said.

There is no secondary-level education available to Rohingya students, the report said.

In a statement to CNN, UNICEF said it had established 2,500 learning centers in the camps that reach close 90% of primary school-aged children, and plans to build 500 more in 2020.

"Taking into account the limited space in the congested camps, this is a substantial achievement that enables us to reach 214,000 children and adolescents with a structured education," the statement said.

"It is NOT a mere group of 'sing and play' activities without pedagogical basis. There is a tangible improvement in the quality of education delivered," UNICEF added. The group said that next year, it will align the contents of the education it provides to be more closely aligned to the Myanmar curriculum.

Cox's Bazar is one of Bangladesh's poorest districts and the Rohingya humanitarian crisis has placed a heavy burden on the host communities.

In its report, Human Rights Watch said that there are not enough schools for Bangladeshi children in Cox's Bazar, and they suffer from high drop-out rates, a lack of teachers, overcrowded classrooms and some students cannot afford to pay school fees.

"The situation in host community schools is a concern in itself as their attendance rates are one of the lowest in Bangladesh. This is why we are also extending our assistance to the host community primary schools to help address the problems that they are facing," said UNICEF.

Human Rights Watch has called on the Bangladesh government to lift all restrictions that "violate Rohingya refugee children's right to education," accredit the education provided by humanitarian education sector in the camps, and allow Rohingya students to enroll in Bangladeshi schools outside the camps.

"Rohingya refugee children have been watching their chance for an education and a better future evaporate, and two years on there is still not even a plan to enroll them in schools," Van Esveld said.

"Depriving an entire generation of children of education is in no one's interest, and the international community needs to act and demand that Bangladesh and Myanmar change course."

CNN's Swati Gupta contributed to reporting.