In a Rohingya Refugee Camp, Soccer Is a Joyful Escape

Mohammed Ismail, a second-generation Rohingya refugee, during a soccer game in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh this month. His parents fled violence in their native Myanmar. CreditAllison Joyce for The New York Times

Mohammed Ismail prickled with adrenaline.

With one defender between him and the goal, he surged from the left wing, dodging pockmarks in the yellow-dirt soccer field. He stroked the ball with the outer edge of the shoes his father had bought him and, quick as a whip, unleashed a shot that left the goalkeeper gaping.

Mr. Ismail, 24, is a second-generation Rohingya refugee, born in this ramshackle camp in Cox’s Bazar on the southern tip of Bangladesh after his parents fled violence in their native Myanmar. And this was his moment, a joyful escape from painful realities.

“When I play football the sadness and anger is far away,” he said, smiling. “But after I finish, it always comes back.”

The soccer field lies on an elevated plain with a sweeping view of the Kutupalong refugee camp: mud-walled hovels and split bamboo structures laced with open sewers. Cockerels and car horns sound from the nearby road.

The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group, are not recognized as citizens in their native Myanmar even though they have lived there for hundreds of years. They have endured periodic persecution at the hands of the Myanmar armed forces and the majority Buddhist population, who mostly see them as illegal immigrants who should go home to Bangladesh.

Showering after playing a game. Soccer is a prized diversion, helping players and spectators forget about their exile. CreditAllison Joyce for The New York Times

Mr. Ismail’s family arrived in 1992 with the first wave of Rohingya refugees, when about 250,000 Rohingya fled abuse at the hands of the Myanmar military. About 33,000 of them remain, living in official United Nations refugee camps in Kutupalong and Nayapara, south of Cox’s Bazar along the Myanmar border.

Bangladesh, a vastly overpopulated country, stopped registering new refugees after 1992, hoping that taking a hard line would deter Rohingya from coming, but it was wrong.

Since 2012, 200,000 more refugees have come, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, creating an unofficial camp alongside the official one. The latest wave began in October, when the Myanmar military began a deadly counterinsurgency campaign after Rohingya militants attacked three border posts, killing nine police officers.

Refugees fleeing the military sweep, which was accompanied by arson, murder and rape, more than doubled the size of the unofficial camp, to 75,000 from an estimated 34,000 in 2013, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The Bangladeshi government has denied the refugees education and work permits “because we want them to return” to Myanmar, said Najnin Sarwar Kaberi, a local official for the governing party, the Bangladesh Awami League. “If they settle here the size of our population will become unbearable.”

Soccer is a prized diversion, helping players and spectators forget about their exile, at least for a few hours.

Ziabur Rohaman, who plays for the unregistered camp in Kutupalong, fled Myanmar with his wife and three children. CreditAllison Joyce for The New York Times

Mohammed Farouque, a refugee who runs a Rohingya soccer club in Malaysia, another destination for the refugees, said that soccer was virtually prohibited to the Rohingya in Myanmar. Most cannot afford the bribe of about $4 required to leave their village, making competitions impossible.

In Malaysia and Bangladesh, most Rohingya are stateless, but at least they can hold soccer competitions. “This is one of the few freedoms we have,” Mr. Farouque said.

In Bangladesh, 16 teams — eight from the unofficial camp and eight from the official camp — play in an annual World Cup-style competition.

Mr. Ismail said that the unofficial camp teams would be stronger this year now that they had more players to choose from but there was a pervasive feeling that the registered refugees were better equipped.

The registered teams have been around long enough to collect periodic handouts of athletic equipment from the United Nations or have been able to earn enough money to buy their own. Unregistered players often wear flip-flops or play in bare feet.

“Ismail’s team beat us last time because they had boots and we didn’t,” said Ziabur Rohaman, 32, who fled Myanmar with his wife and three children in October and plays for the unregistered camp in Kutupalong. “They got them from the U.N.H.C.R. but