In the Hands of Children

After fleeing persecution in Myanmar, nearly a million Rohingya are refugees in Bangladesh, where children turn broken, everyday objects into toys.

Photographs by Ed Jones

Persecuted for decades in their native Myanmar, where they’ve been denied citizenship and face violent ethnic cleansing, the Rohingya people fled to bordering countries in waves, with not much but each other.

In Cox's Bazar, the tourist town in southeastern Bangladesh that’s seen 655,000 refugees pour in since August 2017, aid organizations have been overwhelmed — meaning that many Rohingya must make their own way, fixing plastic sheets to bamboo poles for “housing.”

Khairul, 6; Piece of Plastic Becomes Spade for Sand-digging Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images Khairul, 6; Piece of Plastic Becomes Spade for Sand-digging The conditions in the overcrowded camps are dire; food is limited, drinking water scarce, and and the lack of proper toilets increases the spread of infectious diseases like cholera and tuberculosis. But even amid such desperate circumstances, the refugee Rohingya children find humble and often heartbreaking ways to remain children. Mohammad, 10; Discarded Syringe ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images Mohammad, 10; Discarded Syringe Many resort to scavenging for discarded objects along roadsides and in dumpsters — a plastic bottle cap here, a syringe there. The rudimentary toys caught the eye of photographer Ed Jones, who had initially traveled to Cox’s Bazar to photograph what families had brought with them from Myanmar. But as he would soon discover, few had time to pack belongings. Toys? Furniture? Clothes? All would have slowed them down on their dangerous journey; even without these items, many Rohingya have been intercepted and killed trying to make their way out. Abi, 3; Spinning Toy Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images Abi, 3; Spinning Toy By January, Bangladesh had registered nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees. The stateless Muslim minority group is currently experiencing what the U.N. has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” at the hands of Myanmar’s military and Buddhist extremists. Of the escaped, 60 percent are children. Abdul, 5; Bottle Caps Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images Abdul, 5; Bottle Caps Even facing such a crisis, childhood imagination is hard to suppress. Bottle caps become water jugs and boats; a torn piece of paper is fashioned into a spade that can whip up a sandcastle in minutes. Mohammad, 4; Dismantled Battery Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images Mohammad, 4; Dismantled Battery The toys, no matter how basic, are treasures in the kids’ eyes. “They were often protective of them if other children showed interest,” Jones says. Halima, 6; Whistle and a Razor Blade Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images Halima, 6; Whistle and a Razor Blade Once, Jones saw a girl playing with a small yellow plastic cylinder she’d adapted into a whistle, a toy many children have in the camps of Cox’s Bazar. “When I asked if I could photograph her holding it, she opened her hands to reveal a double-edged razor blade,” Jones says. “As a father, I found the imaginative ways that the children kept themselves busy was both endearing and saddening.” Mohammad, 5; Plastic Fidget Spinner Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images Mohammad, 5; Plastic Fidget Spinner But even if they can stay in the relative safety of Bangladesh, refugee children, who have suffered severe trauma, face a mental health crisis and a long road ahead for integration with local communities.