More than half the refugees fleeing Myanmar are children

Holding on.
Holding on.
Image: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters
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The number of people who have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh over the last three weeks has now crossed 400,000, according to the United Nations. If that’s not bad enough, here’s something even more troubling—the majority of them are children.

Unicef, the UN’s child rights agency, estimates that some 60% of those fleeing a crackdown by the Myanmar military in the wake of an attack by militants on police posts are kids.

The large numbers of children have led the Bangladesh health ministry to embark on a vaccination campaign, supported by Unicef and the World Health Organization, focused on some 150,000 children who are 15 or younger. The seven-day campaign against the most contagious childhood diseases, including measles, suggest the crisis is being treated differently this year by Bangladesh, at least when it comes to immunization. In general, aid agencies have only been able to provide limited help to Rohingya arrivals who were not part of the registered population of the country’s two official Rohingya refugee camps (a stance seen in other nations too). But in the wake of measles outbreaks in the area last year and this year, particularly among those from Myanmar, immunization appears increasingly to be a priority.

The UN and child welfare agencies estimate that over a million Rohingya could flee Myanmar by the end of the year, among them 600,000 children. One tiny ray of hope: the number of children who appear to be in the most vulnerable category of child refugees—those unaccompanied by a caregiver—appears to be fairly limited so far, around 1,300 (paywall).

While the predominance of children among the fleeing Rohingyas might be unusual, it isn’t uncommon for there to be large numbers of children among the refugees in a large-scale crisis. Of the 5.1 million registered refugees who have fled Syria since the war there started in 2011, a quarter are aged 17 or younger, according to the UN’s refugee agency. According to a New Yorker story on child refugees earlier this year, nearly 100,000 unaccompanied minors, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, were among the 1.3 million people who sought asylum in Europe in 2015, many of them arriving in rickety boats via the Mediterranean: “At an age at which most kids need supervision to complete their homework, these children cross continents alone.”

Nor is the situation very different when it comes to the Americas. When the US saw a spike in recent years in the numbers of arrivals from Central America at its southern border, many of them were also unaccompanied children escaping the violence in El Salavador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In the first six months of 2014 alone, nearly 45,000 children were apprehended at the US border.

What happens to all these children? Some child refugees return home with their parents after a crisis abates. Some find asylum and become part of new nations. And some never return to a normal life. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, of the roughly 30,000 refugees presently living in southeastern Bangladesh’s two official Rohingya refugee camps, more than two-thirds were either born in Bangladesh or arrived in the country when they were not yet 10 years old.