‘In all my life, I’ve not known even five minutes of peace’
Four generations of a Rohingya refugee family describe how statelessness has clouded their lives – and their hopes of returning to Myanmar.
“It’s been a lifetime of sorrow,” she says. Her eyes milky with age, 90-year-old Gul Zahar looks back on the lifetime of injustices that have stalked her family.
Gul and her kin are among some 700,000 Rohingya who have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh since August 2017. The violence that has driven them here in recent months follows decades of deep and social exclusion in their homeland, where they lack citizenship.
“We couldn’t move freely … We couldn’t visit our neighbours. It was intolerable suffering.”
At least 10 million people around the world have no nationality and consequently face a lifetime of impediments and inequities. The Rohingya are the largest stateless group by far. Born and raised in Myanmar for multiple generations, they know no other place to call home.
Gul’s son, Oli Ahmed, 53, explains how being stateless stifled their daily lives.
Without access to the banking system, they lived a hand-to-mouth existence. “We lived at a purely physical level, just survival. What we earned in a day was not enough to survive on,” he says.
Mohammad, who first fled to Bangladesh in 1991 as a small child, recalls yearning to contribute to civic life back home in Myanmar. “Being stateless means not being able to be a part of my country,” he says. “I couldn’t join the army, or get an education. We want to be a part of our country in every aspect, if we had the opportunity. It would give me my dignity.”
Beside him on the floor of the shelter sits his brother-in-law, Mohammad Siddiq, 25, who once dreamt of becoming a teacher. But with no basic rights, he was not even able to enrol as a student back home.
“We weren’t allowed to go to the official schools,” he says, noting that he had occasional home schooling during the monsoon months. “But by the time the next year came around, I had forgotten what I learned. I want to get a job, to be a teacher, but how can I?”
Gul Zahar, 90, Mohammad Siddiq, 25, Mohammad Ayub, 31, Kismat Ara, 3, Ayesha Begum, 40, and Oli Ahmed, 53, sit in their one-room shelter in Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh and Myanmar authorities signed an agreement concerning voluntary repatriation in November 2017. In recent months, UNHCR signed two memoranda of understanding, one with Bangladesh and one with Myanmar, setting the framework for voluntary returns in line with international standards. But UNHCR believes the conditions are not yet conducive for their return, as no substantive progress has been made in addressing their exclusion or denial of rights.
“I want my voice to be heard. I want peace to be restored and I want citizenship.”
“What I know is that I won’t go back,” says Oli Ahmed. “I want citizenship. Citizenship is key to everything: peace, security and education.”
Mohammed Ayub agrees: “The first thing we need is recognition that we are Rohingya and a part of Myanmar. Then, we need full access to our rights, and then we need full restitution of all that we have lost,” he says.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established on 14 December 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee issues. It strives to ensure that everyone has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another state, with the option to voluntarily return home when conditions are conducive for return, integrate locally or resettle to a third country. UNHCR has twice won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1954 for its ground-breaking work in helping the refugees of Europe, and in 1981 for its worldwide assistance to refugees.