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
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 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 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.”
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 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.”