Breaking Barriers: Safeguarding Rohingya Children's Mental Health and Rights Amidst Crisis
East and South Asia Human Rights Researcher
Global Human Rights Defence
The Rohingya crisis, now in its seventh year, continues to impose profound challenges on the mental health of the displaced population in Bangladesh. As the Rohingya youth grapple with their protracted refugee status, their aspirations for education, employment, and a meaningful future face insurmountable barriers within the confines of the world's largest refugee camp.
Over six years have passed since over 700,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar to seek refuge in Bangladesh. The refugee population, comprising predominantly of children and adolescents, faces severe limitations in accessing formal education, employment opportunities, and freedom of movement. The dreams of Rohingya youth to become professionals, artists, or sports stars remain distant aspirations amidst the barbed-wire fences of the refugee camp (Aljzeera, 24 August 2023). Recent cuts in food rations exacerbate their desperation, prompting a plea for self-sufficiency (Aljzeera, 24 August 2023). Amidst these challenges, the mental health toll is evident, with a 2022 NRC survey revealing that 96 percent of refugee youth experience constant anxiety and stress (Aljzeera, 24 August 2023; UNHCR, 9 October 2023).
Amin's journey from an ambitious high-school student to a displaced Rohingya youth echoes the silent struggles that unfold within the confines of the Kutupalong refugee camp (Aljzeera, 24 August 2023). The barriers preventing him from pursuing education and a legal career weigh heavily on his mental well-being. The uncertainty of his future, compounded by the trauma of witnessing his village burn, underscores the profound impact of displacement on the mental health of Rohingya youth like Amin.
In parallel, 15-year-old Ayesha's narrative sheds light on the mental health challenges faced by young Rohingya women (Aljzeera, 24 August 2023). While navigating the confines of crowded bamboo shelters, Ayesha yearns for the freedom she once had. The loss of privacy and the societal pressures that lead many girls to marry early contribute to a sense of confinement and despair. Ayesha's emotional journey encapsulates the psychological toll of displacement, emphasizing the critical need for targeted mental health support within refugee settings. Amin and Ayesha stand as resilient figures confronting mental health adversities, highlighting the imperative to address the psychological well-being of the Rohingya youth as an integral part of humanitarian efforts.
The Rohingya youth's predicament transcends humanitarian concerns; it raises fundamental human rights issues. The right to education, a fair chance at employment, and freedom of movement are essential components of the right to a dignified life, enshrined in various international treaties. The denial of these rights perpetuates a cycle of hopelessness, significantly impacting mental health.
- Right to Education and Psychological Well-being:
The right to education, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 26) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 28), is foundational for the psychological well-being of individuals. Formal education provides a sense of purpose, fosters personal growth, and equips youth with the skills to navigate the challenges of life. By depriving Rohingya youth of this right, their psychological development is stunted, leading to a pervasive sense of hopelessness, frustration, and despair. These may have longlasting mental consequences, such as depression or general anxiety disorder.
- Right to Work and Mental Health:
The denial of employment opportunities, a right protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 23) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 6), has profound implications for mental health. Meaningful work not only provides financial stability but is a source of purpose and self-worth. Unemployment, as revealed by the NRC survey, contributes to pervasive anxiety and stress among Rohingya youth, intensifying feelings of helplessness and inadequacy.
- Freedom of Movement and Psychological Impact:
The restriction of freedom of movement, a right safeguarded by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 13) and the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Article 26), has a profound psychological impact. Human beings have an innate need for social connection and exploration. The confinement within the camp, enforced by barbed-wire fences, exacerbates feelings of isolation, entrapment, and powerlessness. These conditions, similar to those in prisons, are fertile ground for the development of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
- Right to Health, Mental Health, and Dignity:
The right to health, inclusive of mental health, is enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 12). The NRC survey highlights alarming rates of anxiety and stress among Rohingya youth, underscoring the critical need for mental health support. The denial of adequate mental health services not only violates their right to health but also compromises their inherent dignity. Mental health is inseparable from overall well-being, and its neglect contributes significantly to a pervasive sense of despair and despondency.
In conclusion, the violation of fundamental human rights directly translates into a mental health crisis among Rohingya youth. The international community must recognize the interconnectedness of these issues and address them comprehensively. Upholding the rights to education, work, freedom of movement, and mental health is not just a legal obligation; it is an imperative for restoring a sense of hope, purpose, and dignity among the Rohingya youth. Only through a holistic human rights approach can we hope to alleviate the mental health burdens borne by these resilient individuals.
Aljazeera. (24 August 2023). Rohingya youth long for a future beyond the barbed wire. Available at https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2023/8/24/rohingya-youth-long-for-a-future-beyond-the-barbed-wire.
UNHCR. (9 October 2023). Rohingya refugee volunteers combat stresses of camp life with mental health support. Available at https://www.unhcr.org/news/stories/rohingya-refugee-volunteers-combat-stresses-camp-life-mental-health-support.
MSF. (31 August 2022). After 10 years in camps in Myanmar, Rohingya mental health continues to suffer. Available at https://www.doctorswithoutborders.ca/after-10-years-in-camps-in-myanmar-rohingya-mental-health-continues-to-suffer/.