Children born in the largest refugee camp in the world teach us what being stateless means to them

Sirazul Islam, Youth Director of British Rohingya Community UK (BRC)
/ 5 mins read

From being born without a State in the world's largest refugee camp to struggling to gain nationality in diaspora communities, statelessness has surrounded us our entire lives. In 2018 a UN independent fact-finding mission recommended that top Myanmar military officials “be investigated and prosecuted” for genocide and human rights atrocities against the Rohingya and other minority groups in Myanmar. Yet there are over 1.5 million Rohingya who are suffering without a State in refugee camps across Bangladesh. This collaboration, by British Rohingya Community UK and ENS, discusses the issue of statelessness and what it means for Rohingya children born in refugee camps who have been brought up in the UK. They are stateless and will probably not have a nationality until they are 18 and can fulfil the extensive requirements to be recognised as British citizens. Many of them did not know why they were stateless, until now.


The Rohingya context

I was born in a refugee camp and at the age of eight, I was lucky enough to be brought to the UK to escape the horrific conditions in Bangladesh’s refugee camps. For the first years of my life, I lived as a second-class citizen with limited access to water, health and education. I was trapped in an open prison and since it was all I knew or saw, I became content with being subject to discrimination. I lost my first and most fundamental birthright, the right to citizenship, simply because of where I was born and to whom I was born – a Rohingya woman. Already, I had lost out on my identity. However, I did not know that my people were denied access to nationality and were made stateless because of how they looked, spoke or where they were born.

Till today, my mother is denied her right to a nationality by her birth country. She is not alone, as there are many Rohingya who have lived their entire lives without citizenship. They have never enjoyed the benefits and peace of mind of having a State to call home. Many will die without ever being accepted. This is the state of my people and the reason I continuously work to ensure my people can proudly call themselves a citizen of their home country – Myanmar.

Community work

The UK hosts the largest Rohingya community in Europe, with Bradford hosting over 350 Rohingya, most of them born in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. Many members of the community, like those in the camps, do not hold citizenship of any country. I work together with the community via British Rohingya Community UK and organisations like ENS to raise awareness of their plight. These people are unaware of the reasons why they are stateless or what it means for them in a legal sense. They have their experiences of being denied entry into places or discriminated against for not having a State, but a detailed understanding of the true extent of this problem still remains to be unpacked. ENS has been a tremendous support in exploring ways to help the community learn about the issue.

As part of ENS’ Childhood Statelessness in the UK project, I worked with the ENS team to explore useful ways to develop the understanding of young people in our community around statelessness and how it impacts us. I felt it was important for those who are the future of the community to have a good understanding of statelessness, primarily because learning about this topic lets them understand why they were born in a refugee camp and why they were denied access to their basic rights. It is also important to connect youth to this work as it is they who will keep the issue at the forefront of people’s minds in the future, as they take action to end statelessness. .

The Film

When ENS approached us about their work with their UK members to raise awareness of childhood statelessness, I wanted to take a more unconventional approach, by working directly with young people in our community. ENS is well known for its legal work surrounding statelessness and they have made excellent progress with various stateless communities. However, I saw that my community was in a unique position where they didn’t require legal help as much as they required an improved understanding of the issue.

In March 2022, British Rohingya Community UK and ENS co-facilitated a creative workshop with a group of Rohingya youth in Bradford. I aways think involving young people brings a fresh perspective to sensitive topics, and I was not disappointed. The project showed progress I had not seen before in any other forums. The age range of the group varied from 10 to 18, and they all had a different understanding of the issue,  whether from speaking to their parents about their own experiences or because they had learnt about subjects like the Jewish Genocide in the 1940s in school. Their perspective was also refreshing as they did not just focus on their own community but strived to help others who were in similar positions. As the day went on, we saw the young people being more critical of the world, the legal process to access nationality and governments for the way they treat people. They were shocked to learn about the cost of citizenship applications in the UK. They were angry about the way their parents were treated. Most importantly, they became proud of their identity as Rohingya.

This project was well designed by ENS to ensure that it was easily deliverable to young people of all ages, while engaging them in a way that encouraged their critical thinking to expand. I would highly recommend other communities who have a large diaspora group to engage in similar activities, as it allows them to connect to their roots, and you would be surprised how much young people want to do to help their people. An important step is for young people to have a fact-based understanding of the reality of  statelessness and how much it affects people around them, thus it is beneficial to teach them about other groups as well as their own community.

For me, as someone who was born in Bangladesh, raised in the UK and a Burmese Rohingya, projects like these have allowed me to express my identity and be proud of who I am. It is through connection and pride with all the parts of my identity that I find momentum to strive for change.

Related topics