COX’S BAZAR (16 JANUARY) – More than half of all child refugees – at least 170,000 – in Bangladesh’s camps are at risk of psychological and social distress. For at least 50,000 of them, the stress can be toxic and can result in life-long damage, says international charity World Vision, which calls for a scale up in psychosocial interventions for children.
Fighting has driven out more than 655,000 people from Myanmar’s Rakhine State into Bangladesh since August 2017, notes the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG), in collaboration with humanitarian partners. Aid groups, including World Vision, have reached 120,839 boys and girls with psychosocial support to help address the psychological and social effects of the emergency through child-friendly spaces. Some 28,000 young boys and girls have attended adolescent clubs to learn life skills. “These numbers are only the tip of a mental health iceberg,” said Fred Witteveen, World Vision’s National Director in Bangladesh. “There are still thousands of children who need urgent psychosocial care.”
After an emergency, lack of timely psychosocial care can impair a child’s mental, emotional, social, and physical development; in extreme specialized cases, lack of psychosocial support can result in complex, lifelong psychological needs. The younger children are, the more vulnerable these girls and boys are to toxic stress, which happens when the body’s stress response system is activated over a prolonged period without adequate care.
“What is frightening is that of some 194,000 households surveyed in the camps, about 7,200 are now headed by children,” noted Witteveen. “As if these children weren’t under enough stress, now they are forced to fend for their family; all while their emotional, social, and development problems may be deepening. This all within a pressure-cooker camp setting.”
The growing camp population, which has multiplied four times in four months, has stretched protective communal structures, including gender-sensitive latrines and bathing spaces. This scarcity has fueled fears among girls and boys, including adolescents and women, of gender-based violence, specifically sexual assault.
“Our tent is in the hilly area where the water source is far. I always go in a group and never dared to go alone because I fear that someone will try to sexually harass me,” shares 15-year old Sharifa* who has to walk at least 15 minutes to collect water.
But overcrowding has limited what aid agencies can build, including child-friendly spaces, where psychosocial support (among other interventions) are provided to children. Land for communal services should be allocated while capacity building for service providers that address child protection risks and needs should be prioritized.
Ibrahim*, a 12-year-old attending one of World Vision’s seven child-friendly spaces noted, “Every time I am here, I don’t think as much of my friends and playmates who died in Myanmar.”
But such relief, these days, can be fleeting.
“Psychosocial intervention is as important as food, water and other basic services,” reiterates Witteveen. “Without targeted services to manage complex cases like child survivors of violence, we face the risk of a mental health crisis developing within an already enormous refugee crisis.”
To date, only 25.6 percent of the USD 30.7 million needed to fund child protection initiatives, including psychosocial care, has been raised.