Independent Appeal: The children who hunger for food and knowledge

One of the world's most beleaguered minorities is fighting for help for its young people.

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The Independent Online

From inside the hut comes the sound of children quietly chanting. "A, B, C, D, E," they go, cautiously working their way through the alphabet. It's not much of a classroom, this hut of branches and tattered black plastic sheeting. The children sitting on the floor don't have books or a blackboard for their teacher to write on. And yet these bright inquisitive pupils are keen to learn and enjoy their lessons. "I like studying English, Bengali and maths," says eight-year-old Forminata. "When I am not at school I help my mother."

These children are Rohingya, one of the world's most beleaguered minorities, and their classroom is in an unofficial refugee camp in southern Bangladesh, 30 miles from the border with Burma. It is a wretched, dispiriting place, criss-crossed with open sewers and makeshift huts. The people are unable to leave without fear of being arrested and have to scratch around simply to survive. It is the sort of place that ought not to exist in the 21st century, and yet here are more than 40,000 people.

The Rohingya are a people that no one appears to want. In Burma, where they have lived in the western state of Arakan for hundreds of years, they are feared and mistreated. Apparently concerned about the "advance" of Muslims into a Buddhist country, the Burmese junta refuses to grant them citizen status and has enacted strict rules that govern their lives. They are even required to pay if they wish to move to another village. Twice in recent years – in 1979 and 1992 – large numbers have poured into Bangladesh.

But the authorities here do not want them either. Terrified of encouraging more poor, needy people to head across the border, they do what they can to deter the refugees.

As a result, while 28,000 refugees are registered with the government, a further 200,000 migrants – some claim the figure is as high as 500,000 – are unofficial. While the official refugees live in shelters, receive food, medical care and educational support, the unofficial migrants are forced to fend for themselves.

The disparity between the small number of official refugees and the hundreds of thousands of unregistered Rohingya is no more starkly revealed than here at Kutupalong, south of Cox's Bazar – named after an officer in the British Raj – where the official migrants live in permanent huts and the unofficial migrants in flimsy shacks. Such is its temporary nature that everyone refers to it as Kutupalong Makeshift. And that is the way the officials see it; when residents tried to build a permanent school, the authorities tore it down.

And yet the community struggles on, determined that its children must receive some education, however basic. Within this huge unofficial camp, there are 30 classrooms. During the summer when the temperatures soar, the lessons are held in the relative cool of the very early morning. "We need text books and we need equipment," said Amina, one of the senior members of staff and responsible for helping train others to become teachers. "The lessons are for children aged 5-10. After that we can offer no more."

Children on the Edge, a British-based charity – and one of the beneficiaries of this year's Independent Christmas Appeal – is hoping to establish a nutrition and education programme for these youngsters who have so little. "Their future at the moment is very bleak – they are struggling to get enough food to survive" said the charity's director, Rachel Bentley. "Those that go out from the camp to earn money are in danger of being rounded up and sent back to Burma. Healthcare and sanitation is very poor."

The attitude of the Bangladeshi authorities makes it very difficult for aid organisations to work in the unofficial camps. Yet, their wish to continue to be permitted to work with the registered refugees means such organisations rarely offer public criticism of the authorities in Dhaka. It also means that reliable data about the conditions and requirements of the unofficial refugees is lacking.

Yet one simple need that anecdotal evidence suggests is not being properly met is that of adequate nutrition. "This is a food crisis. We need food," said Syed Hussain, a 55-year-old community leader from Kutupalong Makeshift camp's "E" block.

Mr Hussain, who entered Bangladesh four years ago as the Burmese junta sent increasing number of Burmese settlers to the Rohingya villages, pointed out a small patch of land on which a dozen or so men were working.

He said that while a labourer might earn 200 taka (£1.80) a day working in the nearby village, on this field next to the camp the rate was just half that. "But if we go outside, the authorities may arrest us," he said

Long-term observers of the Rohingya in Bangladesh say of the three possible solutions – voluntary repatriation to Burma, widescale settlement in a third country and legal settlement in Bangladesh – none seem currently seem likely. The UN considers the Rohingya's case to be a "protracted situation".

What makes their situation perhaps even more helpless is that their plight receives little international attention and no diplomatic support. Quite why a Muslim minority should receive discrimination and persecution rather than help from Muslim countries is unclear.

One of the results of this is that every year hundreds of Rohingya seek to escape their "open prisons" by sea, paying human smugglers to take them first to Thailand and then moving on overland to Malaysia and Indonesia, both of which are Muslim nations. Few countries in the region treat the refugees with much dignity. Two years ago it was revealed that the Thai military had seized hundreds of refugees and towed them out to sea where they were "left to die". They were eventually rescued by the Indian coastguard. The Thai Prime Minister had to apologise.

Jane Williams, a programme officer with UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, said the "season" for such attempts was about to begin. "The people most vulnerable to agreeing to be smuggled are the unregistered refugees," Ms Williams said.

One of the few organisations which is doing anything to help the Rohingya is Children on the Edge.

The charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal

Children around the world cope daily with problems that are difficult for most of us to comprehend. For our Christmas Appeal this year we have chosen three charities which support vulnerable children everywhere.

* Children on the Edge was founded by Anita Roddick 20 years ago to help children institutionalised in Romanian orphanages. It specialises in traumatised children. It still works in eastern Europe, supporting children with disabilities and girls at risk of sex trafficking. But it now works with children in extreme situations in a dozen countries – children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa, post-tsunami trauma in Indonesia, long-term post-conflict disturbance in East Timor, and with Burmese refugee children in Bangladesh and Thailand.

* ChildHope works to bring hope and justice, colour and fun into the lives of extremely vulnerable children experiencing different forms of violence in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and South America.

* Barnardo's works with more than 100,000 of the most disadvantaged children in 415 specialised projects in communities across the UK. It works with children in poverty, homeless runaways, children caring for an ill parent, pupils at risk of being excluded from school, children with disabilities, teenagers leaving care, children who have been sexually abused and those with inappropriate sexual behaviour. It runs parenting programmes.