COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It was August 28, and like any other Monday for brothers Hussain and Mufisa. The two boys, aged nine and ten, waved goodbye to their parents and left for school in their village in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
When they returned, their childhood home was in flames and their parents were nowhere to be found.
They followed their neighbors into the nearby forest, where they were told their parents, Rohingya Muslims, had died at the hands of the Myanmar army in an attack on the village of Chin Khali.
“We are very sad without our parents and feel very lonely,” Hussain said, with a vacant expression, in the Kutupalong camp across the border in Bangladesh. Beside him stood his brother, his bare arms folded defensively.
With their home torched and parents dead, the two brothers were forced to flee with the other villagers, carrying nothing but their schoolbooks.
After five days walking over jungled hills and across rivers the boys arrived in Bangladesh where they were abandoned by their neighbors and left to sleep on the side of the road.
They are not the only children to have been orphaned or separated from their families in the explosion of violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State.
Over 400,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled a Myanmar military offensive that began after a series of guerrilla attacks on Aug. 25 on security posts and an army camp in which about a dozen people were killed.
Numerous Rohingya villages in the north of Rakhine have been torched but authorities in Buddhist-majority Myanmar have denied that security forces or Buddhist civilians set the fires. They blame the insurgents, and say 30,000 non-Muslim villagers were also displaced.
The United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, has so far identified 1,312 unaccompanied or separated Rohingya children among the latest arrivals in Bangladesh - a number they fear will increase over the coming days, Jean Lieby, head of child protection at UNICEF Bangladesh, said by phone on Monday.
UNICEF estimates that an “unprecedented” 60 percent of new refugees in Bangladesh are children.
“We are particularly concerned about the separated children,” Jean-Jacques Simon at UNICEF South Asia told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Trafficking, child labor, exploitation - you name it, these children are vulnerable.”
In the sprawling refugee camps that have sprung up along Bangladesh’s southern frontier, UNICEF has set up tented spaces for the children to play safely.
But along the roadsides or among the muddy lanes of these squalid camps, thousands of Rohingya children beg for food or money.
Bangladesh was recently downgraded to a Tier 2 “Watch List” country in the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, reflecting increased concerns about government efforts to combat trafficking.
The report expressed particular concern for country’s Rohingya population arguing their “stateless status and inability to receive aid and work legally increases their vulnerability to human trafficking.”
“We have already heard that there is the recruitment of children for exploitative domestic servitude jobs within the refugee camps” said UNICEF’s Lieby.
Early marriage was also a risk for Rohingya refugee girls, whose families have too many mouths to feed.
Earlier this year, a U.N. survey found that over half of Rohingya girls who fled to Malaysia, India and Indonesia became child brides.
In the Bangladeshi camp, 10-year-old Noor Kajol is one of those vulnerable.
The young girl fled northern Rakhine State after the military shot her father in the head while the two of them were brushing their teeth, she said.
The eldest of five siblings in a fatherless household, she is now particularly at risk of exploitation.
“We are hungry and have not had much food,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from her dingy shelter, deep inside what is called the new Kutupalong settlement.
The abduction and trafficking of minors is not a new threat faced in Bangladesh, which has been hosting hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees since the 1990s. In the first half of 2017, aid group Action contre la Faim (ACF) recorded the disappearance of 16 Rohingya children.
But the sheer scale of the recent influx makes the new settlements fertile territory for traffickers, and it is not just the unaccompanied or separated children who are at risk, said Lieby.
“New families are vulnerable because they have lost everything and they need income so they are more inclined to hand their children over to harmful entities,” he said. “Our message is don’t give you child to anyone you don’t know.”
Hussain and Mufisa are safe for now, having been taken in by fellow refugee Zafor Ahmed, a stranger who found the boys crying by the side of the road.
They now live in the Kutupalong camp in Zafor’s family home - a precarious shelter made from two sheets of muddied tarpaulin and sticks of bamboo. At night they sleep body-to-body, a wicker mat the only barrier between them and the sodden earth.
“I already have a family of six, so it is difficult to all live under the same tarpaulin hut,” said 45-year-old Zafor.
“But it is not safe for them on their own so I am happy to look after them until the government of Bangladesh or another organization can take responsibility.”
Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, resilience and climate change. Visit www.trust.org