As of 20th October 2017, reports claimed that 1200-1500 children arrived in Bangladesh EVERYDAY fleeing violence, hunger and what sounds ominously like a genocide, in Myanmar.
It is difficult to forget the photographs that have come to represent the series of crises across the world, that have triggered waves of human beings seeking ‘refuge’. According to the UNHCR, A refugee is someone who has fled his or her country and cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
It is such a big, drastic word – driven from your home because you fear for your life. In that one word everyone seems the same – all those fleeing. Yet, even among those who flee, there are some who are better equipped to survive and deal with the extreme stress of the situation.
The able bodied younger men or women for instance, are likelier to survive than the old or infirm. What of those with disability? What of young girls? What of younger children, still so dependent for care on parents or caregivers? So even among those who are so terribly vulnerable, there are some who are far more vulnerable than the others – for whom simply surviving to get to the other side is an accomplishment. It makes me wonder – if 1500 children reach Bangladesh every day, how many don’t?
I think, sitting in our homes, with WiFi and our children safely engaged in doing homework or watching TV, we have no understanding of this phenomenon. Harsh Mander mourns in ‘Looking Away’ at the loss of empathy among the privileged in India. He explains the lack of rage at poverty and deprivation, by saying that middle class India simply refuses to see it. Because if we see, how can we but be enraged? It follows then, that if there is no rage, there is no seeing.
I think that’s how we’re dealing with the fact that so many children per day arrive as refugees in Myanmar. Or that children are fleeing Syria and losing their lives every single day. Or that across India, children are compelled to run from homes fearing assault, persecution. We refuse to see – it is unconscionable. Humankind, as we know cannot bear very much reality.
I am reminded of a conversation with a friend, Aniket… ‘It means ‘without home’ – a- niket’, he explained to me once. Then smiling, ‘not like a refugee. More like, ‘the world is my home’.’ This is how so many of us think now – that we can travel anywhere, settle anywhere, that the world has become closer.
But for hundreds of thousands of children, it is exactly the opposite – the world is in fact, refusing to be their home. They’re turned away from countries, seashores, borders simply refused a place to rest, eat. They’re chased from their homes because of one aspect of their identity – the faith they’re born into, their ethnicity, race…In terror, their families flee – and the child is uprooted just like that. What is worse is the subsequent search for a home – imagine traveling in the most difficult conditions – cramped, with no space to use for any bodily functions, with everyone just getting progressively more tired. How does a 7 year old mind deal with this sudden lack of space and people she can call her own? How does a 13 year old beset by insecurity anyway, engage with it? What does it do to a girl who’s just begun menstruating? Imagine the fear and fatigue. And to top it all, the many physical and emotional transitions and uncertainties in childhood.
In this movement, the focus is on shelter, food, water. Who has time for play, education, care and concern? Or patience to explain what is happening or to deal with a tantrum?
It’s not just about refugees from other countries by the way – look around. Those children under the flyover, where is their home? And the others rushing to get a bit of water from the dripping tanker, where is their home? And what of those who are shunted out to the periphery of the city whenever a new housing project is launched – where is their home?
You know what, we can do something about it.
- Ask questions in whatever public forums you can – every question counts. For instance, in urban planning, ask questions about playgrounds. Ask where the space for the Anganwadi is, or where the municipal school (all the way to Class X) will be. Ask also about a Primary Health Centre.
- Make children’s rights a priority – there have to be some of us who will always prioritise the rights of children. It is not enough to say that we work for sanitation for example. Open washing spaces (modis), the lack of clean spaces to change sanitary pads, toilets without doors are unsafe and unacceptable for children.
- Commit to children – a child without the basic rights to a childhood is MY responsibility. Know about Children’s Rights and ensure you help uphold them.
Most of all, DON’T LOOK AWAY.