Rohingya Children Facing ‘Massive Mental Health Crisis’

Gulbahar, a 25-year-old Rohingya Muslim, with her youngest daughter after arriving in Bangladesh in November. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Jehora Begum was a fast runner, racing through rice paddies and splashing through canals.

But how can a 12-year-old girl outrun a bullet?

When Myanmar’s military and Buddhist vigilantes descended on Rohingya Muslim villages in late August, burning homes and spraying gunfire, 14 members of Jehora’s family — including her mother, her father and four of her siblings — couldn’t run quickly enough.

They all died, according to witnesses and human rights groups investigating the massacre in Maungdaw Township.

Jehora was shot as she waded through a canal, the bullet lodging near her pelvis. Still, she and her younger brother, Khairul Amin, made it to safety in southeastern Bangladesh, where refugee camps now house far more Rohingya than remain in their homeland in Rakhine State in Myanmar.

“I have nightmares that the military is chasing me,” Jehora said. “I wake up, and I think of my parents, and then I stay awake for a long time.”

The funeral for Mohammed Hosain, 2, who died of pneumonia in an expanded area of the Kutupalong camp in September. CreditTomas Munita for The New York Times

Of the more than 655,000 Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh since the Myanmar military began its crackdown in late August, around 380,000 are minors, according to Save the Children, the international aid organization. At least 30 percent of the refugee population is younger than 5.

Children are everywhere in the camps, fighting for aid handouts, wading through sewage and balancing jugs of water or bundles of firewood on their heads. Some are dressed in improbable combinations of donated clothes: a tiny tuxedo jacket paired with basketball shorts. Many wear nothing but dust.

More than anything, the soundtrack of the Rohingya refugee camps is a child’s wheezing cough, followed by a prolonged sniffle.

The prospects of these young refugees, say child development experts, are grim.

“What we’re seeing is the perfect breeding ground for a massive mental health crisis for children,” said Lalou Rostrup Holdt, a mental health adviser for Save the Children.

“You have trauma on a huge scale, children seeing brutal killings and being forced to leave home with nothing,” Ms. Holdt said. “You have hunger. You also have significant developmental delays due to malnutrition and understimulation that predate the recent trauma. It’s absolutely devastating for an entire community.”

Rohingya refugees jostling for aid at a hot meal distribution center in Palongkali refugee camp. CreditTomas Munita for The New York Times

Ms. Holdt, who has been working in the camps for two months, said that many Rohingya children are living in a state of near constant “fight or flight” arousal, a hyperstressed condition that can change the architecture of their brains.

Yet the children who made it to the camps are the lucky ones. Doctors Without Borders estimates that at least 730 Rohingya children younger than 5 were killed in Myanmar between late August and late September, mostly by gunshot, according to a survey released in December. Nearly 10 percent of those children were burned in their homes, while 5 percent were beaten to death.

The international medical charity cautioned that its estimate was conservative and probably understated the true mortality figures.

Although the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar say they will proceed with a voluntary repatriation scheme in the coming weeks, there is little enthusiasm among Rohingya refugees for returning to the site of what Western governments have labeled ethnic cleansing.

The Myanmar government has stripped most Rohingya of citizenship and considers them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The likelihood, then, is that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya children will grow up both stateless and homeless — an untethered life of displacement that bodes ill for a people already wounded by decades of military persecution in Rakhine State.