Rohingya: What future awaits a refugee child born while his parents fled Myanmar?

  • Ragini Vaidyanithan
  • BBC News, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

May 16, 2023

Anwar Sadiq had only been born hours earlier when a BBC team met him in a refugee camp in Bangladesh in September 2017.

His mother, Mohsina, found nothing to wrap him in except a thin piece of cotton cloth. She was cradling her skinny baby in a rickety tent on an empty plot of land.

Five years later, life is still difficult for that young boy who came into the world in dangerous and unstable circumstances.

He is one of half a million children growing up here in the midst of hunger, disease and suffering, with no sign of improvement. Children in this camp receive no formal education, and have little chance of finding a job.

Anwar was born into a life fraught with chaos and danger. His young parents were among the hordes of Rohingyas driven from their villages by fear and empty-handed.

Mohsina told us at the time: “I thought I would give him birth in a beautiful and peaceful world. But here I am in a refugee camp, and it is not a beautiful place at all.”

About a million people live here at the moment, surrounded by barbed wire, cut off from the outside world.

They have fled Myanmar’s army, which is accused of carrying out systematic killings, rape and torture of the Rohingya minority – which the United States last year described as genocide.

Since this same army is currently running the country, since the 2021 coup, the Rohingya refugees have very little chance of returning.

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Pictures taken by the BBC of Anwar moments after his birth in 2017

We searched for Anwar in the maze of cramped, narrow lanes that make up what is now the world’s largest refugee camp, near the coastal town of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.

We could hardly believe ourselves when we stumbled across the beds among the endless rows of identical bamboo huts.

In 2017, the family was living in the open, with no fixed address. The situation has not changed much, and the family does not even own a mobile phone.

Today Anwar is a shy, wide-eyed boy. He clings to his mother most of the time, resting his head on her lap and holding her hood.

He now has two sisters, Sadika, who is two years old, and Almar Rufa, who is about to turn one.

Although the family no longer has to live in a canvas tent, what they have now is not much better.

They live in a small, one-room hut with no windows. They don’t have fans to cool off the heat and humidity, and there isn’t much ventilation.

There is no bed for Anwar and his two sisters to sleep on, only a mat donated by the United Nations that barely softens the concrete floor.

Mohsena, Almar, Anwar, Sadeqa, Nurul Lok

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Anwar and his family live in a one-room bamboo hut with no windows, beds or ventilation.

They have only a few things given to them by aid agencies – some metal utensils and clothes hanging from a clothesline.

“In Myanmar, we had a big, sturdy house made of wooden planks, and we owned a piece of land and farmed it for our livelihood,” says Mohsana.

She was only 15 years old and in her final months pregnant when she fled the Myanmar army in 2017 with her husband, Nurul Haq.

Her uncle was shot dead while he was out fishing, and Mohsana feared that if her family did not leave the country quickly they would suffer the same fate.

Mohsana walked for days barefoot and her ankles were swollen.

As she was about to cross a river to reach the neighboring country of Bangladesh, she went into labour.

The rickety wooden boat she was in capsized, and Mohsana thought her unborn child would drown – but her husband saved their lives.

The exhausted couple continued walking until they reached a hospital near the border, where Muhsana gave birth to her baby, Anwar.

It’s amazing that they all survived. But after a few weeks, Muhsana returned to the same hospital, which is located near the camps, and was afraid that she might lose Anwar.

He had a fever, his heart was beating very fast, and he couldn’t stop coughing. Doctors said he was suffering from pneumonia.

Hardly a week goes by without Anwar and his two sisters falling ill.

Living conditions for children in the camp are squalid and unsanitary – they play alongside piles of rubbish, inhaling the pungent fumes from the thick black sewage.

Children in the camp

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Children inhale the stench from the polluted sewage that circulates through the camp

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 30,000 babies are born here each year – but this place is not suitable for children. More than half of those under the age of five suffer from anemia, while forty percent of them suffer from stunted growth.

“Children live in unsanitary, unclean and overcrowded places, which leads to their infection with various infectious diseases,” says Dr. Tanweer Ahmed from the charity Doctors Without Borders.

Despite the efforts of charitable organizations, Dr. Ahmed says that Rohingya children are trapped in a circle of disease, as they get sick, are treated, and then return to the same unsanitary conditions in the camp, only to get sick again.

Lack of nutritious foods is also a major factor. “Sometimes there is something to eat, and sometimes there is no food,” Mohsana says.

The Rohingya refugees depend almost entirely on aid agencies for food. They receive a fixed food voucher every month which they redeem at a UN food distribution center for staples such as rice, chicken, vegetables and lentils.

Over the past month, the food aid refugees depend on has been cut from $12 to $10 a month. In June, it will shrink back to just $8. The World Food Program says it has been forced to do so by a drop in international funding, with the war in Ukraine placing a heavy burden on relief and aid budgets from major donors such as the United States.

Mohsena's empty food containers

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The food that Mohsan’s family gets is not enough to sustain them

Mohsana has already run out of food this month – the plastic containers that should have been full of rice, lentils, sugar and spices are all empty, leaving only half a packet of salt and one garlic clove.

Until the next food ration, the family has nothing to eat but a small amount of chicken and fish curry that has been stored for days in a metal pot, and may have to borrow some food from other families.

“We are constantly worried because we don’t know how we will go on with life. How can we earn a living and provide for our family?” says Muhsana.

Her 22-year-old husband, Nurul Haq, sometimes manages to work only a few days a month, doing hard work or cleaning smelly drains, but he is forced to sit in his hut most days.

During our visit, Nour sat quietly in the corner rocking his youngest daughter.

When Typhoon Mocha hit the camp, a small tree fell on top of their hut, bending part of the fragile bamboo frame.

In what is an indication of how quickly the Rohingya refugees have adapted to the difficult situation, Noor al-Haq was able to repair the hut hours after the storm subsided.

But refugees are not allowed to leave the camp to work, and there are very few jobs available inside – about 95 percent of the camp’s youth are unemployed, according to a 2022 report by the Norwegian Refugee Centre.

Bangladesh prohibits any kind of mixing between refugees and the local community and does not even allow Rohingya refugees to be taught the local language or curricula.

After hosting the refugees for five years, the Bangladesh government now wants to return them to Myanmar as quickly as possible.

In an interview with the BBC, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called on the rest of the world to take more responsibility.

“They cannot put this burden on our shoulders forever. Our country is overcrowded and our people are already suffering,” she added.

But the Rohingya refugees say they will not return to Myanmar unless they are given guarantees about their safety – and with the civil war there continuing, that demand is unlikely to be met.

The psychological and mental suffering caused by this refugee crisis is another story that no one talks about.

“I don’t want my son to suffer like I did. I want him to learn and work,” says Nurul Haq.

But this will be a challenge.

The children of the Rohingya camp gather at Anwar's learning centre, where education offers hope for a brighter tomorrow

Rohingya children do not get a formal education, schools are not allowed in the camps, and they do not go to local schools in Bangladesh.

To fill part of that gap, aid agencies and volunteers have set up makeshift classrooms inside the camp. UNICEF says there are currently about 5,000 such learning centres, the majority of which are run by teachers without formal qualifications.

Anwar goes to one such center near his home only two hours a day. Although he has only lived in Bangladesh, he is taught in Burmese, the language of the country his parents fled from.

When Anwar asks Muhsina where he was born, she tells him that his life began in this refugee camp.

He asks her, “Have you seen Myanmar yet, Mama?”, and she replies, “No, you haven’t seen it yet.”

The question is, where will Anwar be five years from now?

Participate in preparing the report and taking pictures Each of Neha Sharma and Amir Pirzada.