Starting in 2023, UNICEF plans to extend a pilot program to educate Rohingya children at upper grade levels who are living at refugee camps in Bangladesh and have been deprived of schooling for years, officials said.
Under the program so far, the U.N. agency has been supervising classroom instruction under a Myanmar national curriculum for nearly 200,000 children enrolled mostly in grades 1 through 4 at learning centers scattered in camps, but now UNICEF said it plans to cover all 410,000 school-age refugee children.
The United Nations Children’s Fund and the Bangladesh government launched the so-called Myanmar Curriculum Pilot Project in November 2021 with the aim of ensuring the fundamental right to education for Rohingya children to help prepare them for repatriation.
“Nearly 200,000 children already attend Myanmar curriculum classes and by next year all children enrolled in learning centers in the camps will be learning according to the Myanmar curriculum,” Sheldon Yett, the UNICEF representative to Bangladesh, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated news service.
“We know how much Rohingya refugee children want to learn and UNICEF is committed to fulfilling the right to education for every Rohingya refugee child,” he said.
UNICEF said nearly 500,000 children live in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar and Bhashan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal where Bangladesh’s government has relocated a small portion of the Rohingya refugee population.
That figure includes about 410,000 boys and girls who are school age. About 80% – 324,000 children – are being educated at 3,200 learning centers. More than 2,800 of the centers are operated by UNICEF and its partners.
Children make up about half of the roughly 1 million Rohingya sheltering in Bangladesh. Nearly three-quarters of the refugee population crossed into Bangladesh after the Burmese military launched a brutal offensive in their home state of Rakhine in August 2017.
Bangladesh’s government has kept the refugee population confined to the Cox’s Bazar camps and a special housing complex built for Rohingya on Bhashan Char. The government also does not allow the refugees to enroll in Bangladeshi public schools.
In a statement issued in May, UNICEF said the initial education program would target 10,000 children in grades 6 to 9 but was to be scaled up in phases so that by 2023, all school-age children would be taught the Myanmar curriculum.
“In normal circumstances, grades 6 to 9 cater to children ages 11 to 14. However, many Rohingya refugee children have fallen behind in their education, and so most children enrolled in grades 6 to 9 are ages 14 to 16,” it said.
Animesh Biswas Atal, a coordinator with Prantic Unnayan Society, a Cox’s Bazar-based development organization, said the society runs 14 educational facilities in Cox’s Bazar and on Bhashan Char island that operate under the Myanmar curriculum.
“Apart from the U.N. many nonprofit agencies, like our organization, and big NGOs, like Save the Children and BRAC, are working in Rohingya camps to ensure access to education for Rohingya children,” Biswas told BenarNews.
A teacher in Cox’s Bazar said efforts to boost the number of students were showing results.
Mohammad Zakaria, an instructor at a learning center in the Leda Rohingya camp in Teknaf, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar, said 85 students were enrolled before the Myanmar curriculum was adopted, a number that grew to 104.
“It happened within three months of starting the program. The number of students is increasing day by day,” he told BenarNews. “Children are pleased with the new curriculum, and parents are excited.”
A 6-year-old echoed the teacher’s statement.
“Now I can learn the education of my homeland. We are all excited about this,” Nur Kamal told BenarNews.
US senators speak out
Meanwhile in late November, a group of U.S. senators led by Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts called on the Biden administration to back Rohingya educational efforts.
They called on USAID and the State Department to support Bangladesh in such efforts “by increasing funding for education in the refugee camps and by providing additional technical support to these crucial programs.”
“In 2021, authorities in the country banned Rohingya-led schools in refugee camps and have continued to restrict efforts to provide additional educational opportunities for refugees in Bangladesh,” the senators said in a joint statement.
“The United States must work with the Bangladesh government and humanitarian organizations to improve educational opportunities and increase enrollment and participation for Rohingya students – including by allowing community-led schools to operate, taking steps to overcome cultural barriers to female education, and protecting the safety of students and teachers – to ensure that all Rohingya children in Bangladesh are able to secure an accredited education.”
Back in Cox’s Bazar, instructor, Rahmat Ullah, a 40-year-old Rohingya who took shelter with his family at the Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar in 2017, was hopeful that if the United States were to boost its humanitarian efforts, the government and UNICEF would follow.
“If all the children in the camp get an opportunity to study in the Myanmar curriculum, our next generation will get a chance to be educated as per our homeland standard,” he told BenarNews.
UNICEF issued the statement shortly after Amnesty International and other human rights groups urged the Bangladesh government to support community-led learning facilities for Rohingya. The groups pointed to the closing of 30 schools in the camps.
“Ensure access to education for all Rohingya children by building capacity for all learning facilities within the refugee camps including by granting legal status to community schools in line with their international commitments,” the groups said jointly in late April.
UNICEF is the lead agency for the pilot program but the government is guiding the U.N. agency to help ensure that all Rohingya kids are educated, according to a Bangladesh foreign affairs official.
“Work has begun with a goal of providing free education from grade 1 to 12 under the Myanmar curriculum,” Miah Md Mainul Kabir, director general of the Myanmar Wing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told BenarNews.
BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news service.