UNHCR cards give refugees in Bangladesh individual identities

News Stories, 23 July 2008

© UNHCR/I.M.Bayzid
Rohingya refugees in Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Bangladesh show off their new UNHCR-issued ID cards earlier this week.

KUTUPALONG REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh, July 23 (UNHCR) Far too often, women in the conservative Muslim community of this refugee camp have been considered as appendages of their male relatives, dependent on them even for their daily food rations.

For women refugees, being recognized in their own right is one of the protection benefits conferred by ID cards that are now being issued by the UN refugee agency to more than 22,500 refugees in the two refugee camps in Bangladesh.

"I am very happy to receive an identity at my age," said Zohora Begum. As the 65-year-old refugee fingered her new card, she vowed to "keep it with me always, in a safe place, so that no one can take it away from me."

The new ID cards, being issued by UNHCR this month in Kutupalong and Nayapara refugee camps near Cox's Bazar in the south-east of the country, are recognized as valid identity documents by the Bangladeshi government.

Issued to every refugee over the age of five, they bear a photo and the refugee's name and details, as well as the distinctive UNHCR logo.

"With these cards, refugees will be able to identify themselves as people legally permitted to reside in Bangladesh if they meet law enforcement officials," said Pia Prytz Phiri, UNHCR's representative in Bangladesh. The two camps are home to about 27,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar in 1991.

The ID cards replace a "family book" system that was unwieldy and open to abuse, with the books sometimes confiscated by refugee leaders as punishment or sold to outsiders who could use them to gain access to valuable services within the camp.

Under the family book system, all members of one family were registered in one document under the identity and authority of the patriarch. In many cases, grown children, their spouses and own children were all under the grandfather's name. Some family books contained the names of as many as 45 members, so individuals lacked their own identities.

Mohammed Rafique, a 38-year-old, said he felt "honoured" by the new ID card that rectifies that situation. "I am very pleased and never thought myself and my family would ever receive an ID card," he said after getting his new card on Tuesday.

With food rations in the camps previously issued to the patriarch according to the family book, it was not always certain that each family member got the rations intended for him or her. In a society where polygamy is common, with the new ID card and a new system of ration cards, second and third wives will get rations for themselves and their children separately from the rest of the family.

"For us, the ID cards are really a milestone in recognizing each and every refugee and their individual rights," said Phiri. "They finally exist as individual refugees and are no longer lumped together as a group."




UNHCR country pages

How UNHCR Helps Women

By ensuring participation in decision-making and strengthening their self-reliance.

UNHCR's Dialogues with Refugee Women

Progress report on implementation of recommendations.


Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to abuse in mass displacement situations.


The recording, verifying, and updating of information on people of concern to UNHCR so they can be protected and UNHCR can ultimately find durable solutions.

Women in Exile

In any displaced population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and sometimes their family structure, females are particularly vulnerable. They face the rigours of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse, even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families. In the last few years, UNHCR has developed a series of special programmes to ensure women have equal access to protection, basic goods and services as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

On International Women's Day UNHCR highlights, through images from around the world, the difficulties faced by displaced women, along with their strength and resilience.

Women in Exile

Refugee Women

Women and girls make up about 50 percent of the world's refugee population, and they are clearly the most vulnerable. At the same time, it is the women who carry out the crucial tasks in refugee camps – caring for their children, participating in self-development projects, and keeping their uprooted families together.

To honour them and to draw attention to their plight, the High Commissioner for Refugees decided to dedicate World Refugee Day on June 20, 2002, to women refugees.

The photographs in this gallery show some of the many roles uprooted women play around the world. They vividly portray a wide range of emotions, from the determination of Macedonian mothers taking their children home from Kosovo and the hope of Sierra Leonean girls in a Guinean camp, to the tears of joy from two reunited sisters. Most importantly, they bring to life the tremendous human dignity and courage of women refugees even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Refugee Women

Statelessness and Women

Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

Statelessness and Women

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