The right to an identity for Rohingya children – Tosmin's Story

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: Article 8 – the right to an identity

UNICEF Bangladesh
An adolescent girl in a yellow Niqab, Tosmin, is cross stitching in a dark room with light streaming in.
UNICEF Bangladesh/2019/Sujanmap
25 September 2019

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – The last time Tosmin saw her father, she was 16 years old. Soldiers from the Myanmar army were making their way through Rakhine State, and when they arrived in Buthidaung, Tosmin’s village, everything was torn apart.

Tosmin lost everything – including her father, who was brutally murdered by the soldiers.

Tosmin watched her home, village and everything she once knew burn. Shouldering the loss, she began walking: it took nine days for Tosmin, her two brothers, and a group of relatives to arrive in Bangladesh. They walked by foot – with no food – for the trip’s entirety. Eventually, they would make their way to the world’s biggest refugee camp, a crowded, sprawling settlement that is now home to over 910,000 Rohingya refugees just like Tosmin.

“We lost our freedom. We lost our identity.”

— Tosmin

Life for the Rohingya

Though the Rohingya community can trace their roots in Myanmar back centuries, in that country, they are considered illegal immigrants. The Rohingya have no access to citizenship or a legal identity, although they – and their families – were born in Myanmar.

In Tosmin’s hometown, Buthidaung, Rohingya are barred from even the most basic human rights. Couples are only allowed to have two children, must bribe government officials to let them marry, and need official approval to move to a new home or village.

Though Tosmin loved her village and her life at home, being part of the Rohingya community was always difficult. Her teachers often ignored Muslim students like Tosmin and placed barriers between Rohingya children and educational success.

As a result of the continued oppression, Rakhine State, where most Rohingya used to call home, is Myanmar’s least developed region. The area has a poverty rate of 78 percent – almost double the national average.

The raid that took place on Buthidaung was just one of many that occurred in August of 2017. Since then, over 910,000 refugees have settled in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – 60 percent of whom were children.


New beginnings in the world’s largest refugee camp

Two years after her father’s death, Tosmin still lives in Bangladesh. She and her brothers have tried to rebuild their lives in Cox’s Bazar, but living among hundreds of thousands of the world’s most vulnerable people has not been easy.

“In the camp, we are extremely exposed,” Tosmin said. “It’s a wide open and overly crowded place. We live in a tiny room, and though we get shelter, food and health care, I am not comfortable here.”

Tosmin looks at the camera while sewing pink fabric, bright pink and teal cloth hangs on the wall behind her.
UNICEF Bangladesh/2019/Sujanmap
Tosmin, age 18, is working to become an expert tailor. She hopes that through sewing, she can earn enough money to return to her country and claim her nationality – for the very first time.

Even so, for the past six months, Tosmin has tried to make the best of her days at the camp. She spends most of her days in the tailoring center that recently was established, learning how to swing-tailor and embroider by hand. Before he died, Tosmin’s father was a tailor, and learning this skill has brought her father closer to Tosmin’s heart.

“I’ve always admired my father’s profession. I want to establish my own tailoring shop, just like him, and earn enough money to return to my country and claim my nationality.”

— Tosmin

Every day, Tosmin alternates between the old-fashioned sewing machines at one corner and the group of 20 others sewing cloths in the other. Her goal is simple: she will become so skilled at sewing that she will earn enough money to go home. As soon as Tosmin returns, she aims to finally claim her identity as a Myanmar citizen.


The feeling of statelessness for Rohingya refugees

Though Tosmin hopes to claim her status as a Myanmar citizen, such an ambition is currently impossible for Rohingya refugees. Half a million Rohingya children, including Tosmin, are now counted as “stateless refugees” in Cox’s Bazaar. They have lacked a legal identity well before becoming refugees, and with no birth certificate or formal citizenship, they hold no legal claim to the country of their birth.

“We do not have rights here or in Myanmar,” Tosmin said. “We are just in the middle of these two countries. None of us have a personal identity – and we are not recognized as individual human beings."

Nisha sews parallel to the camera. Light streams in through the bamboo thatches against the window.
UNICEF Bangladesh/2019/Sujanmap
Despite having the promises made to them in Convention on the Rights of Child ignored, youth like Tosmin are persevering to obtain their rights on their own.

This situation goes against the Article 8 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a worldwide treaty signed by almost every country of the world – including Myanmar – in 1989. Thirty years later, we are seeing the effects of this opposition in Bangladeshi refugee camps, where children are stranded, stateless, with nowhere to go. The Convention on the Rights of the Child states that if a child is deprived of an identity, state parties need to immediately intervene in providing assistance, protection and establishment of an identity. But in Myanmar and throughout the world, governments are blatantly doing the opposite.

As a result, children like Tosmin are paying the price for a conflict far beyond the bounds of anything she can control. 

“I don’t want to be a refugee anymore,” Tosmin said. “I want my home back.”