A humanitarian crisis continues in Bangladesh, as hundreds of thousands of people continue to flee violence in Myanmar, and thousands of people are arriving at temporary makeshift settlements. In these settlements, children make up over half of the population. Unaccompanied and separated children continue to be amongst the most common arrivals; these are children who are alone and have to rely on others to help protect them.

Members of the Red Cross and Red Crescent are working along with local and international humanitarian organizations to meet the incredibly high needs that are being further complicated by monsoon rains and deteriorating sanitary conditions.

Earlier in 2017, an International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) and Bangladesh Red Crescent assessment was conducted in the makeshift settlements to determine the priorities for protection and assistance challenges for girls and boys, and to determine practical solutions to ensure children’s basic needs are met. 

Children in these settlements have experienced extremely stressful events. They have had to flee their homes, thousands have been separated from their families, and they may have witnessed horrible violence against people they love, or may have experienced violence themselves. When girls and boys arrive in the settlements it can be chaotic, crowded, and lacking safe spaces.

Red Crescent workers do activities with childrenOne area that the Red Cross and Red Crescent is prioritizing for children is psychosocial support. The assessment showed that children need safe spaces that are just for them. Working with UNICEF, the Bangladesh Red Crescent is now starting to deliver seven child-friendly spaces; including five that are mobile, so hard to access parts of the region where migrants are arriving can be reached. Activities are led by specially-trained psychosocial support workers and volunteers. The work will draw on lessons from a recently developed IFRC global review on child friendly spaces partly funded by the Canadian Red Cross.

Gurvinder Singh, the senior protection advisor with the Canadian Red Cross, participated in the assessment. He explains the role of child friendly spaces: “these spaces provide a safe zone for children. They also allow kids to engage in activities that let them feel like kids again. Some of these girls and boys have witnessed things like seeing their parents shot in front of them, or they themselves have been shot, they’ve had to run from their homes at the drop of the hat, and lost their friends and homes in an instant – so having a space where they can just be kids, play games that help them heal and have fun is important.” Other activities in these spaces help children address the extreme stress they have experienced and learn tactics to be safe from sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and access help if they do experience any protection problems.

Children colourConsidering the high importance of psychosocial support, the Canadian Red Cross recently deployed an experienced psychosocial aid worker, and the IFRC has deployed two Protection, Gender, and Inclusion (PGI) aid workers. Along with the Bangladesh Red Crescent, these aid workers are helping to identify the exact amount of unaccompanied and separated children, and they will work to respond to issues such as SGBV. A key focus is to ensure those who are often left invisible due to age, gender, sexual orientation, and disability are included in programming.

Gurvinder notes that SGBV is still something that carries a lot of stigma, and often occurs in secret, making it difficult to show exact numbers of how many children and adults in the makeshift settlements are impacted. There are reports of SGBV as people have fled Myanmar, or within the makeshift settlements themselves, “we know it’s a risk, and very much present”.

As thousands more are forced to leave their homes, resources are strained and conditions in the settlements remain difficult. The Bangladesh Red Crescent is working around the clock to provide support. In a situation this serious, it can be hard to find the positive, but Gurvinder offered this,

 “What’s positive is that we’re seeing ‘all hands on deck’. Experts in psychosocial issues are being deployed, children who are alone are being supported, and we are reaching people even in the hardest to access locations. Most important are the local volunteers, a majority of whom are young people, continue to be engaged. These young people are virtually spending their whole days in the settlements trying to find solutions to keep girls and boys protected and to assist them in accessing essential humanitarian services. They are making daily sacrifices, like missing out on their own day-today lives, to try to improve things, in such hard and unrelenting environments; it’s inspiring and incredible.”

Gurvinder’s work in Bangladesh is supported in part by the Government of Canada.