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Rohingya youth face bleak future

As rain begins to fall, a young Rohingya man at the Kutupalong refugee camp takes shelter under his umbrella. There are 28,000 documented Rohingya refugees in the country, but thousands more are undocumented. David Swanson/IRIN
Hla Moe, 25, has a university degree but it is worthless in the eyes of Myanmar's military government. Thus, he and other Rohingya youth have no choice but to till the land just as their ancestors have done for generations in Northern Rakhine State.

"There is no difference between the educated and uneducated young men here," Hla Moe said, outside his parents' farm near the town of Maungdaw, not far from the Bangladeshi border.

"We [Rohingya youth] have two options: live a suffocating life or flee the country."

There are some 800,000 Rohingya in Rakhine today, most of whom live in abject poverty. Barred from civil service jobs, as well as from travelling freely to secure work elsewhere, most are casual labourers, farmers and fishermen.

Although the Rohingya comprise about 85 percent of Rakhine's population - this ethnic, linguistic and religious minority is de jure stateless, according to the laws of Myanmar.

A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) says forced labour and expropriation of property are a daily reality.

"The state orchestrates violence either directly, to force the Rohingya to leave, or foments discriminatory attitudes and practices whose ultimate aim is to push the Rohingya out," the report states.


While many young people do try to leave - often via smugglers to Bangladesh, Thailand or elsewhere in the region - those who remain struggle to eke out a living under very challenging conditions.

In addition to arbitrary taxation, the Rohingya require permission for everything from travelling from one town to the next to carrying out simple home repairs and marriage.

Many couples attempt to flee the country, while others marry in secret, running the risk of prosecution and even imprisonment.

"We applied for permission three years ago, but we still haven't heard," one 24-year-old Rohingya in Maungdaw said.

With jobs so limited in NRS, many Rohingya men take jobs in fishing, farming and day labour 200910210835540359
Photo: Contributor/IRIN
With jobs so limited, most Rohingya men work as fisherman, farmers and day labourers
Their children - they are only allowed two - may have even fewer opportunities in Myanmar.

"Young people don't see a future for themselves or for their children in this country," Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Arakan Project, an NGO involved in research-based advocacy in the country, said.

Education is possibly the greatest obstacle, as it is often poor or sub-standard, even though it is available at primary and secondary level, she said, and attendance is low due as additional school costs are often too high for many Rohingya families.

Many families spend between 80 and 100 percent of their income on food and other basic essentials. Others routinely keep their children at home to help with household chores, or to contribute to farm work or other activities to supplement the family's income.

As the Rohingya speak a dialect of Bengali with no written form, some 80 percent of the population is estimated to be illiterate - leaving them no choice but to learn the Burmese or Rakhine languages.

Travel restrictions

The ongoing travel restrictions imposed by the government have a particularly onerous impact on young people seeking education and employment opportunities outside the state.

One 19-year-old Rohingya girl was repeatedly denied permission by the authorities to register for university entrance exams - so she works in her parents' shop in Maungdaw instead.

Even if they gained admission as well as the necessary travel permits to attend classes, under Burmese law they are effectively barred from studying certain subjects, including engineering and medicine.

In 2008 alone, more than 400 Rohingya students were prevented from attending colleges and universities, according to the Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO).

"Lives have become unbearable and suffocating for the Rohingya," Nurul Islam, ARNO president told IRIN, citing instances of young people being arbitrarily detained or arrested, often on trumped-up charges for extortion purposes.

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