Last week in Cox’s Bazar, I met Tasmin, a 17-year old Rohingya girl who was learning how to repair solar panels at a multi-purpose learning center operated by the NGO BRAC. Tasmin comes to the center for 2 hours 3 days a week. She and other youth are learning other skills there too, such as tailoring and sewing, vegetable gardening, and crafts. These skills will be handy when these young people enter adulthood soon and establish families of their own.
Giving children the opportunity to learn again
In another learning center for younger children, I sang “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” with Mohammed Rafik, 6, Yasmine, 9, and many of their friends. The children looked happy to be here and to participate in singing, reading, writing and other learning activities.
The learning center, located in Camp 4 in Cox’s Bazar, is operated by DAM, a Bangladeshi NGO, and had opened just a month before our visit. The center makes it possible for about 40 children to attend classes 5 days a week from now on instead of staying home with little to do.
The learning centers I visited are just 2 among more than 3,000 now operating across the 34 camps in Cox’s Bazar, where more than 1 million Rohingya refugees live. The centers are a testament to the remarkable response organized in a very short timeframe by the Government of Bangladesh and the international community after the arrival of Rohingya families fleeing violence in Myanmar two years ago.
A humanitarian crisis of enormous scale
In 2017, the needs for emergency humanitarian support in Cox’s Bazar were massive, in shelter, food, health, psychosocial support and education. Now two years later, I was struck by the progress made by various actors to provide services, despite working in difficult conditions.
The humanitarian response to the Rohingya crisis is overseen by the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner for the Government of Bangladesh and by the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) on the humanitarian side. Within the ISCG, the education sector response is coordinated by the Strategic Advisory Group, with UNICEF and Save The Children as co-chairs, and with close to 40 other active partners, both national and international.
In late 2018, the Government of Bangladesh and its local partners decided to allocate US$8.3 million of GPE funds for the emergency education response to the Rohingya crisis and to supporting the surrounding communities in Cox’s Bazar. The grant is managed by UNICEF. The new DAM learning center I mentioned earlier was established with support from this grant.
So far, the GPE support has meant the establishment of 237 learning centers and the training of 474 teachers (including 213 female teachers), allowing more than 15,000 Rohingya children to be enrolled in education activities.
This is just one of many contributions toward the education response, which is estimated at US$59.5 million for 2019 and is only 36% funded so far. However the GPE grant has an essential feature: it supports education for Rohingya children AND for Bangladeshi children living near the camps in Cox’s Bazar.
Impact of the crisis on host communities
Last week, I also visited the Nijerpara Government Primary School in Ramu, not far from the camps, and this opened my eyes to the impact of the crisis on the surrounding communities. Both the school management committee (composed of teachers and parents) and the district education official we met noted that there were not enough teachers at the school.
Currently, the school welcomes 490 students but has only 5 teachers working in two shifts to accommodate all students. Teachers from host communities are attracted to jobs in the camps’ learning centers, because the wages there are sometimes more than 4 times higher than in public schools.
I also noticed that classrooms at Nijerpara had more girls than boys, which is unusual. When I asked why, I was told that a lot of boys prefer to look for income opportunities in the camps rather than stay in school.
The Cox’s Bazar district was already lagging behind in terms of overall education sector progress, compared to the rest of Bangladesh. The Rohingya camps are now putting additional pressure on an area that already needed more support.
These are critical systemic challenges that we are addressing by investing in the host community schools, and we will need to make sure that the international community continues to take the host communities’ needs into account as an integral part of its response to the crisis.
Children and youth need continued education support
One of the key observations I took away from this trip is the importance of supporting youth and not just the youngest children: the life skills activities and training that I witnessed at the BRAC multipurpose center are really good, but they don’t replace a formal and comprehensive education that can open the path to good jobs and a brighter future for these young people. The youth themselves said this is what they wanted. Getting a good education will allow them to be good citizens and be easily reintegrated in their home country.
Without education leading to hope, some of these youth may be lured into crime or extremism. Some of that is already being observed in the camps (drug dealing, human trafficking, gender-based violence), and the sheer size of the population in Cox’s Bazar makes it a humanitarian crisis we cannot ignore.
In my meetings with Md. Zakir Hossen, Minister of State for Primary and Mass Education, and Mohibul Hasan Chowdhury, Deputy Minister of Education, I said that GPE stands ready to continue our support to the education needs of both Bangladeshi and Rohingya children and youth, and that should the Government request our help, we will be ready to step in.
The two ministries overseeing the education sector in Bangladesh are in the process of drafting a comprehensive education sector plan with support from a GPE grant, managed by UNESCO, and this plan will be the stepping stone for what comes next.
We know that education must continue to be part of the overall response to the Rohingya crisis, and GPE will do all it can to ensure that all children get the education they need.