Growing up in Bangladesh, Abdullah’s Rohingya family was barely scraping by. His father collected wood to sell at the local market, but the income was not enough to feed the family of 12. Life was getting tougher and Abdullah’s dream of furthering his education was fading.

Then, a relative offered his father a well-paid job in a brickfield. The offer extended to his sons, including 14-year-old Abdullah. They were told they would be given decent accommodation, food, and time to rest. “If we work together, we will overcome our poverty,” Abdullah recalls his father telling them.

Barely a teenager, the only work Abdullah had known was household chores and homework. He wanted to stay with his mother and sisters and continue his studies. The only consolation: he would be together with his father and two elder brothers. “So, we said our goodbyes and got on the bus for what was going to be the most difficult experience of my life,” says Abdullah.

IOM operates multiple Child Friendly Corners in the Rohingya refugee camps. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

As soon as they arrived, they were told to start work despite the long journey they had just endured. They each faced two eight-hour shifts a day. “My work was to help my brothers, carry bricks, and dig. My brothers were older, stronger; they had to do all the hard work,” explains Abdullah.

The family soon realized they weren’t allowed to leave the compound, which was always locked and guarded. Lack of food and sleep, hard work, along with their employer’s constant abuse, soon started to take its toll. When multiple workers were laid off, they were kept on. “We didn’t have any papers; we couldn’t go anywhere.”

When the production of bricks was ramped up, they were forced to work day and night to complete their tasks on time. “When my brother decided to ask for our wages, the only thing he got was a good beating.” Eventually, Abdullah’s father fell ill and without access to medicine or treatment, he died shortly after at the construction site.

Teams often organize awareness-raising sessions to share key protection messages. Photo: IOM/Mashrif Abdullah Al

Five years after arriving there, Abdullah and his brothers decided they needed to escape if they wanted to live. With only the clothes on their backs, they ran until they reached safety. “Every day, we prayed that one day we would be free. We never got our salary, but you can’t put a price on freedom,” Abdullah says.

In 2020, the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) protection team in Cox’s Bazar identified and assisted 339 victims of trafficking with case management support, including livelihood, medical and psychosocial assistance. IOM further assists adult victims of trafficking by providing income-generating opportunities to help them start over.

“Every time I talk to other refugees, I tell them my story. I think it inspires others to think twice before making important decisions like we did,” Abdullah says.

At IOM’s Child Friendly Corners, children can participate in various educational and psychosocial activities. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

To minimize protection risks in the camps, IOM works closely with the Government and local partners, including local organizations, community groups led by women and disabled persons, community-based child protection committees, adolescent committees, parent groups, religious leaders and teacher networks.

IOM also provides case management services and psychosocial support to gender-based violence survivors, children at risk of neglect and abuse, unaccompanied and separated children, victims of trafficking and other extremely vulnerable individuals.

Adolescent girls are disproportionately at risk of emotional and psychological abuse, sexual abuse, child marriage, child-headed households, and pregnancy, while adolescent boys like Abdullah are more at risk of child labour and child trafficking.

During focus group discussions, refugees talk about the child protection messages shared in the booklet “Heart-to-Heart with My Child”. Photo: IOM/Mashrif Abdullah Al

In 2020, a total of 541 children received individual support through child protection case management services, while over 9,000 received psychosocial support in IOM’s Child Friendly Corners. In these spaces, children can participate in educational activities while their caregiver can join various psychosocial activities.

“Given the COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions, IOM and its partners continue to adapt operations to ensure that prevention, mitigation and response activities reach those in need,” says Manuel Marques Pereira, IOM Deputy Chief of Mission in Bangladesh. “The team prioritizes the respect for human rights, and the safety and dignity of those affected, contributing to the development of healthy coping strategies and mitigating the gendered impacts of the virus.”

Abdullah is happy today that he can advise the refugee community and hopes that by telling his story he can further encourage parents to value education. “Children should be in school, not working. It is our duty as adults to protect them and provide for them. You can never get your childhood back.”

IOM’s protection services in Cox’s Bazar are currently possible thanks to the support of the US State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, USAID's Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, Global Affairs Canada, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Government of Japan, the UN Central Emergency Response Fund, the EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid, and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development through the KfW Development Bank.

This story was written by Monica Chiriac, IOM’s Public Information Officer in Cox’s Bazar, Tel: +880 1880 084 048, Email: mchiriac@iom.int.