April 15, 2022
Josep Borrell Fontelles,
High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
Commissioner for International Partnerships
Commissioner for Crisis Management
Cc: Ambassador Charles Whiteley,
Head of EU Delegation to Bangladesh
Dear High Representative Borrell, dear Commissioners Urpilainen and Lenarčič,
As a leading donor to the Rohingya humanitarian crisis, the European Commission has provided crucial support for Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh. Education for many of those children is now in peril.
We therefore hope that the EU will publicly call on Bangladesh authorities to reverse their decision to close schools for tens of thousands of Rohingya children in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar who now have no access to education, and urge like-minded governments to do the same. We also urge you to pressure the Bangladesh government to officially recognize and approve the work of Rohingya community-led schools in the refugee camps and allow humanitarian funding to support formal, accredited education for Rohingya students, including secondary education. Under current restrictions, EU funding may only support informal, unaccredited, basic lessons for younger children.
In December, the authorities ordered,1 without explanation, the closure of early childhood development programs, informal “home-based learning centers” with 22,000 students, and community-led “private” schools that were teaching the formal Myanmar curriculum to up to 40,000 students.2 The home-based and early childhood programs were established with support from the EU and other donors. The community-led schools provided Rohingya refugee children’s only access to instruction in a formal curriculum and to secondary-level classes since August 2017, but the authorities did not recognize or allow the schools to request approval or legal status, and they received no humanitarian funding. To our knowledge, neither the EU nor any UN agency has advocated publicly on behalf of the community-led schools.
Since December, Bangladesh authorities have demolished and forcibly closed community-led schools, detained a teacher who had not closed his school, and warned that teachers and families whose children continue to study will suffer confiscation of their family data cards, which are needed to obtain essential humanitarian aid and services, and will be transferred to a remote, flood-prone island, Bhasan Char. The camp authorities also ordered the closure of madrasas, which provide Islamic religious instruction.
Refugees and humanitarian groups fear the school closures are part of government plans to coerce more families to relocate to Bhasan Char. Refugees on the island face severe movement restrictions, food and medicine shortages, abuses by security forces, and are prevented from returning to the mainland.3
The Bangladesh government is opposed to Rohingya refugees integrating locally and prohibits Rohingya children from studying outside the camps. Humanitarian groups may provide only informal, basic lessons, and instruction in the Bangla language and school curricula is banned.4 However, the community-led schools taught the Myanmar curriculum, in response to widespread demand among Rohingya refugees for education that will enable their children to repatriate and build successful lives in their homeland. Bangladesh agreed in January 2020 to permit the humanitarian education sector to teach the Myanmar curriculum, initially to 10,000 secondary-level students.5 Under the education sector’s plan, supported by the EU and other donors, the community-led schools were to gain government recognition and be included in the sector.6 The school closures undermine this plan.
The EU has prioritized funding for education in emergencies and pledged to “advocate for and support education system reform” in emergencies and protracted crises, “such as expanding and strengthening the teaching workforce.”7 EU law also links the preferential trade status granted to Bangladesh to its fulfillment of basic human rights and subjects Bangladesh to “enhanced engagement.” The EU should ensure that its enhanced engagement also covers pressing human rights issues including all children’s access to education.8 In April 2018, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was “deeply concerned” that Bangladesh’s refusal to grant legal status to Rohingya prevented them from accessing education outside the refugee camps.9
Bangladesh’s policies are denying Rohingya refugee girls and boys the chance for a better future. The closure of community-led schools will place former students at increased risk of trafficking, and teachers whose schools were closed have said their male former students are now engaged in child labor and that girls have been married off. Bangladesh saved countless Rohingya lives by opening its borders in August 2017, but the authorities’ restrictions on schooling are creating an education and protection crisis for a generation of Rohingya refugee children, which could ultimately impact peace and security in the camps. We hope that you will continue to raise these critical issues with the Bangladesh government on an urgent basis.
We would be grateful if you would agree to meet with representatives from a number of our organizations to discuss these issues in more detail in the coming weeks.
European Rohingya Council
Americans for Rohingya
Arakan Institute for Peace and Human Rights
Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights
Arkhan Altruism Society and Educational Network
Burma Campaign UK
Burma Task Force
Burmese Rohingya Association in Japan
Campaign for a New Myanmar
Canadian Rohingya Development Initiative
Crane Center for Mass Atrocity Prevention
Education for Rohingya Children
Free Rohingya Coalition
Friends of Rohingya USA
Global Movement for Myanmar Democracy
Human Rights Watch
International Campaign for the Rohingya
Jewish Rohingya Justice Network
Justice for All
L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty
Literature and Handicraft for Rohingya Women
Los Angeles Rohingya Association
Never Again Coalition
Rhode Island Board of Rabbis
Rohingya Community Auckland New Zealand
Rohingya Cultural Center of Chicago
Rohingya Human Rights Network Canada
Rohingya Student Network
Rohingya Student Unity Rights
Rohingya Women Association for Education and Development
Rohingya Women Development Forum
Rohingya Youth for Legal Action
Society for Humanistic Judaism
U.S. Campaign for Burma
Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
Women’s Peace Network
1 A copy of the 19-point decision of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) is included in the Annex to this letter.
2 Cox’s Bazar Education Sector, “Myanmar Curriculum Pilot 2020: Guidance for Partnerships with Rohingya Community Education Initiatives (RCEI).”
3 Human Rights Watch, “An Island Jail in the Middle of the Sea”: Bangladesh’s Relocation of Rohingya Refugees to Bhasan Char, June 7, 2021.
4 The RRRC closed almost 6,000 education facilities on March 24, 2020 in the context of Covid-19 restrictions. In response, humanitarian groups supported home-based learning programs, but the RRRC restricted these efforts since April 2021. UNHCR and WFP, Joint Assessment Mission Report, July 2021 (December 2021), pp. 36-7.
5 See e.g. UNICEF, “Bangladesh: Prioritizing learning for Rohingya children,” June 15, 2021.
6 Cox’s Bazar Education Sector, “Myanmar Curriculum Pilot 2020: Guidance for Partnerships with Rohingya Community Education Initiatives (RCEI).”
7 European Commission, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on Education in Emergencies and Protracted Crises, 2018, p. 9.
8 EU Regulation No. 978/2012 of the European Parliament and of the Council, October 25, 2012, Article 9(1)(b).
9 UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Concluding observations on the initial report of Bangladesh, April 18, 2018, E/C.12/BGD/CO/1, paragraph 28.