Covering the Rohingya crisis for UNICEF: Three views

Half a million people. In one month. It’s the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency and children are at the heart of it – 60 per cent of the 519,000 Rohingya refugees now in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, are children.

But beyond the astonishing numbers are heartbreaking individual children’s stories. Of loss, suffering, violence, torture, rape. We’ve been telling these stories since the start of the crisis because a vital part of our work is communicating to the world the immense needs of children in emergencies, as well as UNICEF’s lifesaving response. We asked three photographers and filmmakers who’ve been working for us in Cox’s Bazar to tell us what it’s been like to cover such a desperate situation for children.

  • Thomas Nybo is a filmmaker and photographer who has been working with UNICEF since 2004. He’s been on assignment with UNICEF Bangladesh since September 10th and was previously covering the situation of Rohingya refugee children here in May 2017. You can follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thomas.nybo and on Instagram at thomasnybo.

The scale of the Rohingya crisis is staggering. I’ve worked in more than 100 countries and I’ve never seen suffering on this scale. Half a million people were forced out of Myanmar into Bangladesh in just five weeks. You might drive past a hill covered in bushes and trees on Monday, and by Friday, the vegetation is gone, replaced by hundreds of makeshift tents made of plastic and split bamboo. The daily need for food and clean drinking water is almost impossible to comprehend. Imagine a city of half a million people. Now imagine that city being created in just a few short weeks, with no pre-existing stores or water lines or toilets or hospitals. Every single day is a struggle when you are Rohingya. For me, what makes this crisis different than other crises I’ve covered, is the magnitude of the suffering.

A boy holding an umbrella swims through flood waters.
UNICEF NyboA boy swims out of the flooded Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh.

Nearly every story you hear competes for the worst story you’ve heard in your life. A few months ago, I met Sabekunnahar, an 11-year-old girl whose face was decorated with shapes and dots of make-up. “I did my makeup myself with a mirror and a stick to make the dots,” she told me. “My mother was murdered in Myanmar. When I put on makeup it makes me forget about my problems for a little while.” She was beautiful and smiling, but beneath that tenuous smile was a sadness that no child should ever know.

A girl in a purple top and face makeup smiles for the camera.
UNICEF NyboIn Kutupalong Camp in Bangladesh, “I did my makeup myself with a mirror and a stick to make the dots,” says Sabekunnahar, 11.

The hardest part of working here is knowing that every child I talk with is hurting, and has likely suffered a profound personal loss. All of them have been forced from their homes and witnessed unimaginable acts of violence. At the same time, I’ve seen tremendous acts of love among the Rohingya people as they made the long journey from Myanmar into Bangladesh: two grandsons carrying their 90-year-old grandfather; a father carrying his two infant sons in two baskets attached to a wood pole set across his shoulders; two sons carrying their frail 73-year-old mother.

This is what it means to say #Rohingya.

A post shared by Thomas Nybo (@thomasnybo) on

  • Patrick Brown, is a photographer with Panos Pictures and has been covering the Rohingya crisis for UNICEF since 6 September. You can follow him on Instagram. In May 2017 he photographed UNICEF’s Myanmar Child Alert

I photographed a lot of things like this around the world but I just can’t mentally put myself in a position where the only thing you can put on your back is pots and pans and you’re dumped on a beach and it’s survival. Some have travelled in open waters on the Bay of Bengal in monsoon season in a boat that’s no bigger than a bus – imagine, if you’re willing to put up with that danger, imagine what you’re running from.

Several people. carrying belongings, get out of a boat which is moored close to shore.
UNICEF BrownNewly arrived Rohingya refugees walk ashore after travelling by boat from Myanmar.

What is striking for me is how it’s like they’re on another planet. The very Viking-esque structure of the boat. It’s like they’ve come from another continent. The girl gets a brother to safety, gets stuff out. She’s been a powerhouse. You don’t see a mother or father there. The odds of this girl having a childhood are slim to none.

Several dead bodies lie on the ground covered in plastic.
UNICEF Brown The bodies of those who drowned are brought ashore in Cox’s Bazar.

Drowned children. They almost made it to safety. That evening got me really upset. It happened pretty close to the shore. How many boats didn’t make it that night in the storm? We’ll never know.

On the flipside, I have met some amazing characters. Robust characters starting to set up businesses, managing to support families, coming together as a community. Starting to gather the pieces of their past existence and make the best of what they have. They have dreams, aspirations. Take the young girl I met at a learning centre who wants to be a businesswoman, she has dreams just like any other child in the world.

A girl walks through deep water carrying a stick and a young child.
UNICEF BrownNewly arrived Rohingya refugees from Myanmar walk through paddy fields and flooded land after they fled over the border into Cox’s Bazar.

A girl in the mud carrying a boy. My first day here. We’d walked two and half hours through flooded paddy fields. I’m a fairly fit male with food in my belly. Some of these people have walked 6-10 days with a tiny bit of rice. Here is this girl carrying her brother to safety and she looks absolutely exhausted. The mum and dad are carrying pots and pans and grandma.

  • Kyle O’Donoghue is a videographer from South Africa and was covering the Rohingya crisis for UNICEF from 24 September to 6 October.

All of the stories are completely harrowing and surreal. I have not spoken to a single child who has not witnessed violence since the crisis began and almost all have lost family members. Covering the drowning of 11 children when their boat capsized on a nearby beach was perhaps the hardest thing I have ever filmed.

My first day of shooting was at a Child Friendly Space in Bulukhali Camp. As a journalist, one is always on the lookout for strong stories and as such often has to try a number of options to find the most impactful approach. I was completely unprepared for the stories we heard at the centre. Each and every child had a story of unimaginable trauma, loss, and heartache. Munjurali showed us his drawings and I knew this was a story I wanted to tell. In a very simple way, he told us of the loss of his sisters through his heartbreaking drawings. I left the centre knowing that this was going to be an emotionally challenging assignment.

Watch the Munjurali video

The world needs to keep its gaze fixed on the Rohingya refugees, as even though they have escaped persecution in Myanmar, their journeys are just beginning. They need health care, education materials, as well as psychological support. In this crisis agencies are struggling to scale up as the massive flow of people is nearly unprecedented.

UNICEF’s response for Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh:

Make a donation to support our lifesaving work for Rohingya refugee children:


Hugh Reilly is a Communications Specialist at UNICEF HQ, currently on mission in Bangladesh.

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