By Naimul Karim

DHAKA, Sept 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Child marriage is on the rise in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps and the risk of human trafficking grows with every day the pandemic shuts youth services, according to a U.N.-led study that was released on Thursday.

Bangladesh scaled back activities in the refugee camps in April and mainly focused on providing health and emergency food to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. It also restricted movement of aid workers and refugees. The move closed many children’s services and made it harder for them to get support, said the Child Protection sub-sector, which works with the United Nations in the refugee camps.

The study was conducted in May.

Officials say the same vulnerability persists.

“Before Covid-19 there was a larger humanitarian footprint and… friendly spaces. Children could talk to facilitators and share their fears with friends. Those avenues are not available to many now,” said Kristen Hayes, coordinator of the sector.

“Child marriage has increased due to the absence of the measures that were able to prevent it,” she said. “Ongoing containment measures are also ripe for trafficking.”

According to U.N. figures, children make up more than half of the roughly 700,000 Rohingya who arrived in Bangladesh in 2017 after a mass exodus from Myanmar.

More than 350 Rohingya trafficking cases were identified last year – about 15% involving children, according to the U.N. migration agency.

This month, about 300 Rohingya refugees believed to have been held at sea by traffickers for six months landed in Indonesia’s Aceh province.

In May, aid workers feared the virus could take a heavy toll on the crowded camps. But official figures – 189 cases and seven deaths – suggest the impact is not as bad as had been feared.

“One can’t expect a normal performance (of services) during COVID,” said Mahbub Alam Talukder, the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner in explaining the cutback in support.

“These measures helped us control the virus and stop the death rate. Our performance was good. Now we are steadily resuming normal activities, keeping the health code in mind.”

The study found there had been an increase in child labour and violence against children, recommending greater access for child protection workers.

BRAC, a Bangladeshi NGO working in the camps, said that they had also seen more under-age marriage, corporal punishment of children and domestic abuse.

“For now, we are trying to address these issues through online counselling one-to-one sessions with our volunteers,” said BRAC spokeswoman Hasina Akhter.