This story appears in the August 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.
In February 2017 Bangladeshi photographer Turjoy Chowdhury was walking through the largest refugee camp in the world when he heard a baby crying. Inside a small shack a one-day-old Rohingya girl was wrapped in a red blanket. As he got closer, the infant’s mother removed the blanket, donated by a relief organization, and allowed Chowdhury to photograph her. Chowdhury decided to take the photo from above the child, as someone might snap for their Instagram account. Not as a refugee; just a baby. “At that very moment, looking at those innocent eyes, I was thinking, ‘What the hell is going on?’” he says. “This baby has nothing to do with politics.”
Rohingya children from Myanmar born in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh start life in a legal limbo, not considered Bangladeshi or Burmese by birth. With neither country taking responsibility for the Rohingya, the newborn Chowdhury encountered is one of 60 children born stateless each day in the refugee camp.
For decades the Rohingya ethnic group have been persecuted and denied citizenship by neighboring Myanmar, which considers them foreigners, but where they say they’ve lived since the fifteenth century. In 1982, Myanmar passed a law that barred the Rohingya from a list of 135 official ethnic groups, denying them citizenship at birth. The Rohingya were forced to trade their citizenship cards from Myanmar for a temporary registration card, which does not count as proof of citizenship. (Read about how the Rohingya were forced to flee Myanmar in an exodus.)
In August 2017, a military campaign against the minority group escalated into a full-blown refugee crisis. Since then, more than 736,000 have fled into Bangladesh where they are not officially recognized as refugees. The loophole restricts their movement and keeps them from getting education and access to public services—nor are they able to acquire citizenship. (Read about the history of the Rohingya in Myanmar.)
Since that first photograph Chowdhury finds subjects for his project “Born Refugee” by asking for newborns in the camp’s crowded streets. “People started realizing it’s important that babies are being born and they started guiding me,” he says. He has photographed nearly 20 babies this way, many of whom hadn’t been named yet. When he inquired, some were named on the spot.
Among the half million children living in Cox’s Bazar, according to the UN Refugee Council, 30,000 are under the age of one. “The impact of being stateless creates great uncertainty for the future of Rohingya children,” says Karen Reidy, a UNICEF spokesperson. They’ll likely be cut off from both formal education and labor markets. “A child without any nationality can face a lifetime of discrimination.” (See photos from the frontlines of the Rohingya refugee crisis.)
There are at least 12 million stateless people in the world, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, but there are gaps in the data, particularly in places like China. Globally, says Amal de Chickera, a co-director of the Institute of Statelessness and Inclusion. “A shift toward xenophobia” may result in a rise of statelessness, he says, from the United States to the refugee camps of Bangladesh. But for refugees without citizenship, the problem is exacerbated.
“There’s been sustained attack on identity and history of the Rohingya, and we’ve come to the situation where Rohingya are stateless,” de Chickera says. “One of the ways in which it affects them is that being stateless limits the solutions available to you as a refugee. If you’re stateless it’s not enough to ensure it’s safe to go back [home], you need a state to go back to.”
For Chowdhury, each baby born stateless shows the collateral damage of a conflict that’s so focused on ethnic identity. “One thing comes to my mind all the time is John Lennon’s song, Imagine,” he says. “A borderless world—this is what the project is all about.”