On May 13, a group of Rohingya refugee education leaders had the rare chance to ask some of the questions that had been weighing on their minds for more than two years.
For the first time, they were meeting representatives from the United Nations and international NGOs tasked with providing education to about half a million Rohingya refugee children living in camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Minutes of the meeting obtained by Al Jazeera, show how the community leaders questioned the officials about the slow effort to give refugees formal education, the absence of a Myanmar curriculum in the camps, and the lack of consultation with the community.
“Two years we have been living in the camp with no access to education, why is this?” said Khin Maung, a Rohingya youth activist who was at the meeting.
“We are facing so many difficulties here. We need education so that we do not have a lost generation.”
Under UN guidelines, refugee children are supposed to be taught either the curriculum of their host country or that of their homeland.
In the Rohingya’s case, the Myanmar government refused to allow its curriculum to be used and in October 2017, two months after a brutal military crackdown had driven hundreds of thousands of majority-Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar into Bangladesh, officials in Dhaka banned the use of its curriculum for the newly-arrived refugee children.
A bespoke curriculum, which has only been partly approved by Bangladesh, was supposed to provide a temporary solution while the UN and its partners worked to convince either the Bangladesh or Myanmar governments to allow their curricula to be used by schools in the camps.
But interviews by Al Jazeera, suggest that for 18 months until May this year, there was limited effort to convince the Myanmar government to allow the use of its curriculum to educate the refugee children, now thought to number about 461,000.
Michael McGrath, country director for Save the Children in Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka, told Al Jazeera that part of the problem was a lack of coordinated advocacy across borders.
Save the Children works with UNICEF on the Myanmar Education in Emergencies Sector to address the education component of the humanitarian crisis affecting the Rohingya, but only in Myanmar.
Kenneth Russell, an education specialist at UNICEF Bangladesh, admitted to Al Jazeera that offices in Bangladesh and Myanmar could have worked more closely together to lobby the Myanmar government over the need for a curriculum.
“I guess the question is should the advocacy have continued to be more forceful … more consistent,” he said. “I think that’s a fair question that we need to reflect on.”
The UN in Myanmar, where June Kunugi has been acting resident coordinator since August, has been previously criticised for prioritising a strong relationship with the Myanmar government over human rights concerns.
However, Kunugi, who is also the UNICEF representative in Myanmar, said that since 2017, the agency has pressed the government to allow the use of the Myanmar curriculum inside Bangladesh camps, and that suggestions it was not doing enough on the issue were “not accurate”.
She would not disclose details of their lobbying, saying it would “undermine our advocacy”.
The UN’s involvement in the country from 2010 to 2018 was the subject of an independent inquiry by Guatemalan diplomat Gert Rosenthal, who condemned the agency’s “obviously dysfunctional performance” over the period.
Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division said UN officials needed to step up their efforts.
“At a minimum, UNICEF should have publicly demanded Rohingya refugees be allowed to access the Myanmar education curriculum so these youth are ready to return to Myanmar when the security situation improves.”
Myanmar’s Ministry of Education did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment and objected to the use of the term “Rohingya”.
A new learning framework
UN Refugee Agency regulations say refugees should be taught using the curriculum of the host country. If that is not possible, the curriculum of the country of origin – in this case, Myanmar – is supposed to be used.
But when the UNICEF asked Myanmar to allow its curriculum to be taught in the refugee camps, it refused, citing a lack of jurisdiction of the camps in Cox’s Bazar, UNICEF’s Russell told Al Jazeera.
That was when UNICEF turned to its stop-gap measure – its own programme – for children aged between four and 14.
By early 2018, the first two levels had been completed and submitted to the Bangladesh government.
“We thought it was a compromise that would be acceptable to both sides,” Russell said.
But the Bangladesh government delayed its approval, only giving the greenlight to levels one and two for children aged up to eight, in May 2019. It has still not approved any curriculum for older children.
In the meantime, the refugee children have access only to informal lessons and playtime, and about 97 percent of those aged 15 to 18 are not receiving any education at all, according to a UNICEF report in August.
Ro Sawyehdollah, 18, a Rohingya youth activist in Cox’s Bazar said he was worried that a generation of Rohingya youth would lose out if the situation were not resolved.
“If we don’t get an education how will we know how to take care of ourselves?” Sawyehdollah said. “How will we know what is right and what is wrong?”
‘Race against time’
A survey of 27 community-led education networks, published in July by the Peace Research Institute Oslo, also found that the Rohingya community had not been consulted in the development of the curriculum, under which children learn English, Myanmar language, Maths, Life Skills and Science.
“Most strongly prefer using the Myanmar government curriculum and wonder why it is not being used by education NGOs,” the report said.
Among the refugees are many exiled teachers, who have started running their own schools teaching the Myanmar curriculum, without help from donors.
But these schools lack basic funding and depend on volunteers, said Salah Uddin, who was once a headteacher in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State.
“It is most important to teach the Myanmar curriculum,” he said. “If anyone denies teaching the curriculum he is committing a crime against humanity.”
Frederic Vincent, who leads UNICEF’s education initiatives Cox’s Bazar, told Al Jazeera by email, that there were two rounds of consultations on the new curriculum, attended by focus groups.
But two senior humanitarian workers in the education sector, who requested anonymity, questioned the quality and depth of these consultations.
Since May, UNICEF has been holding discussions with the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments, with both governments appearing to support the idea of using the Myanmar curriculum.
Neither UNICEF or Vincent would comment on the ongoing discussions.
Even if Myanmar makes its education resources available, and Bangladesh agrees, it would still take some time for the curriculum to be rolled out across the camps.
As long as 18 months, according to UNICEF’s Russell.
It is crucial that Rohingya children and young people are provided with an education, said Tomoo Hozumi, who took on the role of UNICEF representative in Bangladesh in May.
“That should be clear to everybody, and in a sense, we are racing against time.”