By Poppy McPherson, The Guardian

With half a million Rohingya refugees under the age of 18 in Bangladeshi camps, it has been labelled a ‘children’s crisis’

The lost boy wails. Tears stream down his face as he looks around, frantic.

“I found him by the main road, so I brought him here,” says a middle-aged Rohingya woman who cradles the toddler in her arms and gestures towards a shack made from wood and corrugated iron.

A Bengali sign translated in rough English reads: “If you lost your familys any members. Then you can publicity here with out any money.”

But the shack, once a lost-and-found booth for separated families, is closed. The woman is told to try using the microphone at a makeshift mosque to make an announcement, but the boy is too young to know his name.

They disappear into the crowd.

Close to one million Rohingya are now living in mud huts, tents and under sheets of tarpaulin in the refugee camps outside the Bangladeshi port town of Cox’s Bazar.

The majority have arrived since August, when Myanmar security forces launched a crackdown in northern Rakhine state that the United Nations has said amounts to ethnic cleansing of the long-reviled Rohingya Muslim minority.

Soldiers, sometimes together with police and local Buddhists, are accused of massacres, gang-rape and arson under the guise of hunting militants.

More than half of those who have fled are children, the United Nations Children’s Fund says. They dominate the camps. The stronger ones lug bags of food and piles of wood on their shoulders, and splash in dirty streams; others sweat out fevers in dusty huts and languish with bellies swollen by malnutrition.

In an interview with the Guardian last week, Elhadj As Sy, a top official with the Red Cross, called the situation a “crisis of children”.

In an indication of both the chaotic nature of the exodus and the high death toll, 40,000 are believed to be without at least one parent according to the European Union. Some are orphans while others were lost during the journey from Myanmar or in the sprawling camps.

Fears of trafficking are high and aid workers say several Rohingya have been approached by people offering to buy children.

“There is no official overall number, but we suspect thousands [of children] are likely to be living with extended families or members of their community,” says Rik Goverde, a communications manager at Save the Children, which is housing a small number of the most vulnerable children.

Before it closed in mid-October, the lost-and-found booth was bombarded with requests. Kamal Hossain, one of 300,000 Rohingya who have been in Bangladeshsince a previous wave of violence in the 1990s, set up the makeshift centre after finding a baby crying outside the gate of Handicap International, where he works as a security guard. He was able to reunite her with her mother by renting a microphone and calling out her name.

Kamal Hossain, who ran a lost-and-found booth for separated Rohingya families in Kutupalong camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photograph: Poppy McPherson for the Guardian

Word spread and, in less than two months Hossain received about 1,500 reports of missing people, the majority children. He was able to reunite about half before he shut the booth down for lack of funds. “I am just a volunteer, I am just a guard,” he says. “I’m uneducated. I need some help like people who can read. I need a salary.”

But desperate people continue to show up looking for answers in his notebooks, filled with the names of the missing. “I’m feeling very stressed now,” he says. “When the centre was open, any separated person could be joined. Now I don’t know what will happen to those lost people.

‘I couldn’t carry them all’

Many may never find their relatives. The dead in Myanmar remain uncounted but Human Rights Watch estimates it to be in the thousands. United Nations investigators said last week the number killed could be “extremely high”.

At the bleak edges of the biggest camp, Kutupalong, where the newer arrivals are camped, four siblings sit in silence, sorrow etched on their faces.

“My parents died in Myanmar. Killed. We were at our home when the military came to attack,” the eldest, Sofara, who is eight, says as she cradles two-year-old Jikara in her lap. At this, the baby starts to wail. Sobs wrack her tiny, naked body and she buries her nose deeper into her sister’s arms.

Their uncle, Kabir Ahmed, a quiet man dressed in a longyi and a Myanmar football shirt, explains that his brother Jafar – their father – was shot dead when soldiers blockaded their village, Boli Fara in Maungdaw township, and stopped residents from leaving.

Families were starving, he says. Jafar had tried to sneak out to go fishing but was caught. They buried his body.

When soldiers came and started burning houses in mid-September, his sister-in-law, the children’s mother, had just given birth and was too weak to flee. In the chaos his sister-in-law, who Ahmed describes as beautiful and loving, was left behind. Later, he heard the whole village had been razed. They raped women too, Ahmed says.

Guilt haunts him. “I couldn’t carry them all,” he says, pressing his fingers into his temples and choking back tears. “She was lying there. Everybody was fleeing. We didn’t have any relatives to ask to carry her. ” He begged her to get up and try to walk. “I don’t know if she heard,” he says. “I didn’t look back. I had to move to save our lives.”

‘I miss my parents so much’

While many of the orphaned and separated children have been taken in by neighbours or relatives, others arrived in Bangladesh alone.

In a centre run by Save the Children, 14-year-old Fatima, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, recounts how she was at home with her father, a village chairman in Maungdaw township when soldiers came for him.

“The military said, ‘Come with us. We have something to discuss with you,’” she says. She fled from the house and went to stay with her grandmother.

Her story cannot be independently verified, but tallies with many Rohingya interviewed by the Guardian who say their relatives were taken away for meetings from which they never returned. The army strongly denies the accusations, framing the fighting in Rakhine as a legitimate struggle against a nascent Rohingya militancy.

When Fatima returned home the following day, she says she found her mother’s body lying outside. When a wave of Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh came through the village, she was sitting by the side of the road crying. A family took her in, and she joined them on the days-long trek. But they beat her and she ended up running away, eventually finding the camps in Cox’s Bazar.

In Myanmar, Fatima was a keen student. She loved to practice Burmese and flick elastic bands at her classmates. Now her days are lonely. “I wake up in the early morning and read the Koran and pray five times. I eat something,” she says. She starts to cry, wiping her face with her sleeve. “I miss my parents so much,” she says.

Trafficking in the camps

With so many undocumented children living without their parents, aid workers are worried about trafficking.

“I think it’s a very high risk,” says Lisa Akero, a protection and gender specialist at the International Federation of the Red Cross. “I’m basing that risk assessment on the already known prevalence of trafficking in Bangladesh and also in Myanmar, and in this setting right now, as in any disaster, when the situation is so chaotic at the moment, with so many people who are not registered and have no identification, of course it’s very high risk.”

The camps are filled with rumours but there have been at least two confirmed cases of people trying to buy Rohingya children, one of them seven years old, Akero says.

“You can’t call it trafficking but documented incidences where families have been offered to give away their children or caregivers have been offered to sell their children,” she says. “To be taken to Dhaka for adoption is what the story will be.”

Organisations such as Save the Children are working on foster care programs and have placed children with volunteer guardians.

On the outskirts of the camps, Kabir Ahmed is relieved to be out of Myanmar but is struggling to care for his brother’s four children as well as three of his own.

He can find few words of comfort for his nephews and nieces. They miss their mother most at night. “They cry, ‘Mother, mother where are you? Take me under your cover.’” he says. “I tell them to stop and try to sleep.”