In the muddied setting of an overcrowded camp, Jhora Shama crouches on top of a square of bamboo, while curious neighbors, friends, and family swarm into the darkened room to hear her story. At once the room is packed and smoke fills the open spaces between bodies, until there is barely breathing room. As Jhora begins her story, nods of recognition move through the crowd, no doubt her fellow refugees share the same experiences. Jhora has been living in this 150 square foot hut with twelve other family members for about forty days, although she’s been living illegally in Bangladesh for 16 years. Jhora is an unregistered refugee and part of an ethnic Muslim minority, called the Rohingya, who originated from the Rakhine state of Myanmar. She fled to Bangladesh after her family’s farm was ransacked, their livestock confiscated and her husband tortured. Since then, life in Bangladesh has been “day to day,” as she explains, “there is no future to plan.”

The Rohingya have been subject to this dilemma for decades; the choice between languishing inside the confines of a camp, living without documentation or legal protection in a foreign country, or living under a regime that not only refuses to recognize the Rohingya as citizens but systematically persecutes them. Jhora likened the choice between living in Bangladesh or Myanmar as a choice between jumping into the “river or the sea;” and fellow refugees have echoed this sentiment as well. Conditions in the unregistered refugee camp are far below the minimal international standards for protection, and those living in the registered camps are only recently starting to see improvements after living in dismal conditions for 17 years.

Ultimately, this has forced the Rohingya to live in a state of uncertainty – without hope for any real solution to their displacement and without the tools to become self-reliant. Perhaps the remarks of the Rohingya themselves are the best evidence of this gap in protection. Abu Khatul, a registered refugee in UNHCR’s Kutupalong camp, lamented to me, “I tried to go back once and it was the same as before, but here, in Bangladesh we are just passing time. This is life? We have no soil under our feet. Nothing is ours- it’s an uncertain life. We can’t go back there, but here we’re not living, not working, we have no resources, and not all our needs are met. I am hopeful in another future for another country.” While other persecuted groups from Burma, like the Chin and the Karen have been resettled in the U.S. in large numbers, the plight of the Rohingya has largely been ignored.

Written by Kristy Crabtree