A sense of self, a sense of life: the need for identity among Rohingya refugees

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

UNICEF Bangladesh
Yeasminara, a young girl in a burgundy hijab, sews next to a window with light streaming in.
UNICEF Bangladesh/2019/Sujanmap
26 September 2019

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – At just 13 years of age, Yeasminara lost everything.

Yeasminara is a Rohingya refugee – one of over 910,000 who has fled to Cox’s Bazar since renewed violence broke out in August of 2017. Yeasminara remembers the days leading up to the exodus well: soldiers used to terrorize her Myanmar community, stealing livestock, destroying houses, and beating teenage boys to death.

“We were living in hell,” Yeasminara said. “We couldn’t light our house at night because if the army saw it, they would set our house on fire. Rape and murder were common, especially against girls and women."

"We were people, but we didn’t have dignity.”

— Yeasminara

Yeasminara is now 15. Over the past two years, she and her family of 12 , including two brothers and seven sisters, have tried to rebuild their lives in the world’s largest refugee camp. Yeasminara has learned to sew through a vocational project in the camp, as every week, she crowds into a tight space with 20 other young girls. Some gather around six old-fashioned Chinese sewing machines while others squeeze into a far corner, hand-sewing with cloths the size of their palms. Though these classes have kept Yeasminara busy, they are a far cry from the formal, high-quality education every child deserves.

Yeasminara and three other Rohingya girls sit at a narrow table with three sewing machines and sew. Light streams in from the window behind them.
UNICEF Bangladesh/2019/Sujanmap
Yeasminara works in a sewing training with other Rohingya refugee youth at a BRAC operated adolescent centre. An estimated 97 per cent of adolescents and youth aged 15 to 18 years are not enrolled in any type of learning facility.

Yeasminara and her family have lost so much, including their home, their community, and their entire lives as they knew them. These losses are re-opening an old wound: Yeasminara’s longtime lack of an identity, nationality, and sense of self.

“In Bangladesh, I am registered as a refugee, but I am more than that. I have a separate individuality. People should recognize that.”

— Yeasminara

According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified 30 years ago by almost every country around the world, children have the unconditional right to an identity. This includes a nationality, something that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have never been entitled to. In Myanmar, Rohingya like Yeasminara have no legal identity or citizenship – meaning that as children, they are not registered at birth.

Without a formal, legal identity, Rohingya are barred from even their most basic rights, including a life free from violence, citizenship, health and education.

“I am thankful to the Bangladeshi people for their extraordinary support to us,” Yeasminara said. “But I cannot forget my home, my childhood, our yards, our trees, our livestock. I want to be a registered Myanmar citizen and live with safety.”

Yeasminara stares at the camera boldly, her hand on an old-fashioned sewing machines and bright fabrics hanging on the wall behind her.
UNICEF Bangladesh/2019/Sujanmap
As frustration at the conditions and lack of opportunities grows among adolescents, they are eager to return to their homes with their rights. In the meantime, they are vulnerable to various forms of exploitation in the camp.

Yeasminara is struggling with something no child – and no person – should ever have to struggle with. On the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we need to take stock of how far we have come and how far we have left to go. The Convention on the Rights of the Child states that if a child is deprived of their identity, state parties need to act immediately to provide assistance, protection and a re-establishment of that identity. But in countries throughout the world, this right is being blatantly ignored.

“Myanmar is my birthplace – we belong there, not in Bangladesh,” Yeasminara said. “I appeal to the Myanmar kin to have mercy on our community and help us reclaim our dignity.”