Tens of thousands of Rohingya children have been left “trapped and almost forgotten” in remote, squalid camps and isolated villages in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the UN has said.
Stringent restrictions on the movement of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine, which have worsened amid the increased violence over the past 15 months, have left an estimated 60,000 children stranded, in need of aid, and suffering from “high levels of toxic fear”, said Unicef, the UN children’s agency.
The UN’s top human rights official has described Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya population as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Marixie Mercado, a Unicef spokeswomen who spent a month in the country in December, described the conditions in some of the most remote camps, five hours by boat in Pauktaw township, as appalling. Medical facilities in the camps were so poor that one man told a Unicef caseworker his daughter had killed herself because she could no longer bear a pain in her abdomen that existing camp services were unable to treat.
“Parts of the camps are literally cesspools,” Mercado told a press conference in Geneva on Tuesday. “Shelters teeter on stilts above garbage and excrement. In one camp, the pond where people draw water from is separated by a low mud wall from the sewage. You can easily see how a little bit of rainfall would wash that filth over into the pond.
“Children walk barefoot through the muck. One camp manager reported four deaths among children ages three to 10 within the first 18 days of December. His only ask was for proper pathways so they wouldn’t have to walk through their own waste.”
Checkpoints, curfews and other travel restrictions make it “extremely difficult” for them to leave the camps for medical reasons, she said. As a result, people are turning to traditional healers, untrained physicians or self-medicating.
A climate of fear in Rakhine state is also hampering medical treatment, said Mercado. “I was told by parents in one Rohingya village that they hadn’t had their children vaccinated against Japanese encephalitis because the government vaccinators were accompanied by security officers – and I was told by government workers that they dared not go to Rohingya communities without security.”
Mercado, who spent most of her time in central Myanmar because access to northern Rakhine is limited, said she was deeply troubled by the deterioration of healthcare services there.
“Unicef and our partners still don’t know what the true picture is of the children who remain in northern Rakhine, because we don’t have enough access,” she said. The agency estimates at least 100 children were separated from their parents during the violence in August.
Mercado said Rohingya children needed a political solution to the issue of legal identity and citizenship.
“In the interim they need to be recognised first and foremost as children. The convention on the rights of the child guarantees rights to health, education and opportunities to learn and grow to all children, irrespective of their ethnicity or status or the circumstances in which they find themselves. Ways and means must be found to deliver these rights to Rohingya children in Rakhine state today.”