08 January 2024

How Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh navigate their “statelessness”

Sucharita Sengupta devoted her doctoral research in Anthropology and Sociology to unveiling the exclusion, counter-resistance and self-resilience of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who are surviving in the camps of Bangladesh as a “stateless” people. She tells us more in this interview.

Why are you interested in Rohingya refugees and their “statelessness”?

I grew up in a family in South Asia that was forced to migrate from the then East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh in 1971) to West Bengal in India when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned in 1947. I was thus always intrigued about refugee lives and struggles and interested in studies and issues related to migration and forced migration studies. This interest was further sharpened during my work as a research assistant at a globally famed research organisation based in India known as the Calcutta Research Group (CRG). Through CRG I got familiarised with the topic of my thesis way back in 2015, which I later took up as my PhD topic in 2017. 

Can you describe your thesis questions and methodology?

The main research inquiry that the thesis sought to investigate was: How do stateless people like the Rohingya – one of the largest stateless people in the world currently – strive for inclusion through daily living, pushing through borders of innate exclusion by the state? More specifically, the thesis attempts to explore empirically what are the instruments that “stateless” people adhere to in order to belong within the formal structure of a nation state and, conceptually, how social inclusion can be studied through persons that fall outside the ambit of state-subject relationships, in circumstances that themselves reek of exclusion. The thesis thus goes beyond the inherent victimhood that the refugee situation entails and explores the agentive discourse and resilience of stateless people. 

The methodology was mixed. For interviews I relied a lot on snowballing. Apart from primary narratives of the people living in the camps of Bangladesh, there were conversations with camp administrators, employees of the Bangladesh government, lawyers, policymakers, NGO/INGO workers, lawyers and so on. During the pandemic years of 2020–2021, I used digital platforms to connect with respondents. Secondary sources include archival and library materials, media articles, oral histories and multiple other resources. 

What are your major findings?

The Rohingya instance shows stateless people who are individuals without a citizenship status, i.e., who are disowned by state control and who nonetheless experience the state through state control, punitive measures and domestic laws that see them as “illegal” but do not allow them to vanish from the political economy of the state. They are often found to be helping in state elections or being pawns of a complex power play where state and non-state actors are also involved. The thesis also demonstrates how state documents are powerful mediators between states and individuals that pave way for individuals to negotiate, resist and position themselves so far as the state is concerned. It is undeniable that statelessness ultimately is a position of absolute victimhood, but it is this very victimhood that the younger generation – the more aware youths living in the Bangladesh Rohingya camps – is not ready to accept. It is their journey and voices that the thesis captures through its seven chapters. 

What are you doing now and do you have plans for your professional future?

At present I am working with CRG, coordinating their collaboration with the University of Oldenburg on the European Master in Migration and Intercultural Relations (EMMIR). I intend to continue with my research in academia but simultaneously be not an armchair academic. I want to be in a space that gives scope to both academic research on refugees – which remains my primary focus – and activism towards ensuring a better world for minorities, refugees and stateless people. I would also be interested in being attached to international humanitarian organisations that work for refugee rights and stateless people. 

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Sucharita Sengupta defended her PhD thesis in Anthropology and Sociology on 29 June 2023. Associate Professor Graziella Moraes Dias Da Silva presided over the committee, which included Professor Alessandro Monsutti, Thesis Director, and Professor Ranabir Samaddar, Distinguished Chair in Migration and Forced Migration Studies, Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, West Bengal, India.

Citation of the PhD thesis:
Sengupta, Sucharita. “The Rohingya (Non) Living “Statelessness” in Bangladesh: Survival and Subversion.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2023.

An abstract of the PhD thesis is available on this page of the Geneva Graduate Institute’s repository. As the thesis itself is embargoed until August 2026, interested readers can contact Dr Sengupta at for access.

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image by Route55/