This is what it is to be Rohingya: in your home country, even in good times, you are considered illegal immigrants from another country. But your supposed home country also says you don’t belong. When times get bad—and lately, for the 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar, they have been very, very bad—you try to flee the killings and the arson and the pogroms by crossing the border to Bangladesh, the place where Myanmar people say you belong, but there you just get arrested by the Bangladeshis, because you are not citizens.
The Rohingya are a people without a country.
Saiful Huq Omi is doing an amazing thing with the Rohingya people. He comes from a politically active Bangladeshi family, and though he only picked up photography in 2005, his work has already added a strong visual voice from within Bangladesh. This is no small achievement in a country that has traditionally only been seen, as he puts it, “through the eyes of white photographers from the west”. But more than that, he has chosen to focus his work on a group of people who are the ultimate outsiders within Bangladesh. His work challenges the assumptions and biases not just of Myanmar or of the west, but of his own people.
The Rohingya were immigrants to Myanmar once, ethnic Muslims who came from what is now Bangladesh, but that was over a hundred years ago. Now, long after the British have left, after new nations sprang up and died and were born again through war and revolution, they remain in permanent exile. The genius of Saiful Huq Omi’s work is that it follows them around the world in that exile. In these photos, he shows their lives on the margins of existence in the permanent camps of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. He shows the underground work and cramped home lives of undocumented Rohingya in Malaysia. And he shows their disjointed lives as (legal) refugees in Bradford, Northern England, a place that offers everything except a sense of belonging. —Nathan Thornburgh
The Rohingya in Bangladesh
With the mother absent, a father cooks for his child.
There are quite a number of Madrashas inside the camp. In these religious schools young boys go to learn the Holy Quran.
Girl with a photo of her stepfather, who murdered her mother but was not charged. With no rights, there is often no justice.
The girl’s mother in hospital, just days before her death.
Many children are born in the Bangladeshi camp, but still are not legal residents there, or anywhere.
The only option for hygiene in the camps: public baths.
Rohingya workers, who do not have permits for employment, often make half of what Bangladeshi workers make.
Illegal, manual labor is the only means of income in and around the camps.
Digging a well in the camps, where fresh water is in constant short supply.
With rain comes constant risks of landslides.
One Rohingya life: caught in police crossfire as a little girl, raped as a teenager, sold for $10 as an adult.
Cards are one of the few forms of recreation in the camp.
Harvesting shrimp: another form of illegal work, subject to jail time if caught.
The Rohingya in Malaysia
A Rohingya man calls home to Burma from Malaysia, where he has come for work.
Solitary prayer during the day, as the other members of her household are out looking for work.
Sheikh Mohammad had a job recycling tires, but was badly burned in a workplace accident.
This child’s parents left to work for the day, leaving only strangers to see him when he woke.
Public bath at a construction site. Many Rohingyas in Malaysia find work in construction.
As in Bangladesh, with no legal work permit, Rohingya are exploited and paid far less than standard wages.
With no permits, most Rohingya women in Bangladesh do not work outside the home.
Performing more illegal, underpaid manual labor, in a forest near Kuala Lumpur.
The Rohingya in the United Kingdom
The UNHCR has helped a (relatively) small number of Rohingya resettle in Bradford, England.
After life in the camps, life in Bradford can feel like winning the lottery, but Rohingya are not always welcomed by more established immigrants.
Rakibul used to learn karate in the camps, and still practices in Bradford.
This widow was, along with her daughter, deathly ill in the camps. In the UK, she has her health again.
“I thank Allah for what I have now,” says Aiub, who is extremely proud of his kitchen.
Aiub still lives off UK government support, so he has the once-unimaginable luxury of spending time with his children.
The idea of recreation: only possible now in their new, more hopeful life in England.
A Rohingya-Bangladeshi wedding in Bradford, a step toward overcoming mutual suspicions.
[Top image: A Rohingya guide, caught on the wrong side of an impassable border. Photo by Saiful Huq Omi.]