When Is a Refugee Story Real, and Why Does It Matter?

The four young sisters sat in a huddle, together but alone.

Their accounts were dramatic: Their mother had died when their home was burned by soldiers in Rakhine State in western Myanmar. Their father was one of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who had disappeared into official custody and were feared dead.

Somehow, the sisters — ages 12, 8, 5 and 2 — made their way to refuge in Bangladesh. An uncle, who had been living for years in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, had taken them in, adding the girls to his own collection of hungry children.

“My parents were killed in Myanmar,” said the eldest girl, Januka Begum. “I miss them very much.”

A Rohingya child in her family’s tent at dusk in the Kutupalong camp in November. Credit Adam Dean for The New York Times

I was reporting on children who had arrived in the camps without their families. An international charity, which had given financial support to the uncle, brought me to meet the girls.

Within an hour, I had a notebook filled with the kind of quotes that pull at heartstrings. Little of it was true.

After three days of reporting, the truth began to emerge. Soyud Hossain, the supposed uncle who had taken the girls in, was actually their father. He had three wives, two in Bangladesh and one in Myanmar, he admitted. The children were from his youngest wife, the one in Myanmar.

In any refugee camp, tragedy is commodified. Aid groups want to help the neediest cases, and people quickly realize that the story of four orphaned sisters holds more value than that of an intact family that merely lost all its possessions.

To compete for relief supplies distributed by aid groups, refugees learn to deploy women with infants in their arms. Crying babies get pushed to the front of the line.

Such strategies are a natural survival tactic. Who wouldn’t do the same to feed a family?

But false narratives devalue the genuine horrors — murder, rape and mass burnings of villages — that have been inflicted upon the Rohingya by Myanmar’s security forces. And such embellished tales only buttress the Myanmar government’s contention that what is happening in Rakhine State is not ethnic cleansing, as the international community suggests, but trickery by foreign invaders.

The official narrative in Myanmar goes like this: Rohingya Muslims are illegal immigrants from an overcrowded Bangladesh. With Muslim men taking multiple wives, the Rohingya are reproducing faster than Myanmar’s majority Buddhists.

Newly arrived Rohingya refugees waiting to be registered in Bangladesh in November.CreditTomas Munita for The New York Times

There is plenty of evidence to counter this claim. Muslim roots in the region reach back generations. The ratio of Muslims to Buddhists in northern Rakhine has not changed much over the past half-century.

But with the Myanmar government restricting access to the area where the Rohingya once lived, even refusing to let top United Nations officials into the country, it is impossible for investigators and journalists to gather firsthand evidence of atrocities. Local reporters for Reuters who tried to investigate a mass grave now sit in jail.

That’s why in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, victims with physical manifestations of their trauma are simpler to interview. A fresh bullet wound in a child’s body is proof that something terrible happened.

For every person quoted, I’d estimate that at least a dozen others were left in my notebooks. But a reporter’s necessary skepticism — which governs our work in every story — only contributes to the invasion of privacy. How must it feel for a Rohingya woman, who admits to a stranger that she was raped, when she realizes that her story is being doubted?

Newly arrived Rohingya refugees waiting to be registered in Bangladesh in November. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Yet I have seen Rohingya people quoted in the foreign news media telling stories that I know are not true. Their accounts, in some cases, are too compelling, like a perfect storm of suffering.

That is not to discount the collective trauma that has compelled nearly 700,000 Rohingya to flee for Bangladesh over the past five months. Doctors Without Borders estimates that 6,700 Rohingya met violent deaths in a single month last year. Even that number, the medical aid group says, is too low.

For four days, I interviewed a 9-year-old boy named Noorshad, and his story had it all. In my notebook, he drew pictures of his house — and the tree from which his parents were hanged by Myanmar soldiers.

Then he drew the jerrycan he clung to as he crossed the river into Bangladesh. He tied his flip-flops to his waist, he said, with a bit of vine. The sandals were from his dead mother. He glanced at them and sobbed.

But there were inconsistencies. Noorshad said he liked cricket, a sport popular in Bangladesh but not in Myanmar. His grandparents were killed by the military, he told me, but then he admitted they had died of natural causes.