As countries close their borders and ask their citizens to stay home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, aid organizations warn that the impact of the virus on the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh “could be enormous.” On March 24, the first case was confirmed in the local community in Cox’s Bazar, and it is now only matter of time until the virus reaches the camps, exposing the most vulnerable.
The so-called “social distancing” many countries are practicing to prevent COVID-19 seems a cruel joke to the million-plus Rohingyas who live in the overcrowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. Most of them fled the Myanmar Army-led attacks in 2016 and 2017, and at present, are living in poor conditions without access to clean water or adequate sanitation, making them especially at risk of an outbreak.
On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19, the disease caused by a novel strain of coronavirus, a pandemic. As of this writing there have been over 737,000 confirmed cases and more than 34,000 deaths in at least 177 countries. Bangladesh, home to 164.69 million people, has confirmed 49 cases and five deaths to date, but the critical believe those figures are underestimating the real impact. As has been demonstrated in more affected countries, the virus can spread rapidly and mostly undetected in the initial stages.
Bangladesh imposed a total lockdown on Tuesday to curb the spread of the virus. Water, rail, and air travel have been suspended, while public transport on roads was banned starting March 26. Those steps came after international organizations expressed concern that the government in Dhaka was slow to take drastic measures to prevent COVID-19. Even as Bangladesh recorded its first death from coronavirus in mid-March, tens of thousands of people gathered in southern Raipur city to pray verses from the Quran to protect the country against the pandemic.
Bangladesh is ill-equipped to handle a health crisis among its own people, critics say, much less among the million Rohingya refugees who have taken shelter in Bangladesh.
Since the refugees learned that someone has tested positive for COVID-19 at Cox’s Bazar, they “have panicked,” according to Chris Lewa, director of the NGO Arakan Project, who has been monitoring the plight of the Rohingyas for years.
Although it is not known for sure if the reason is related to the coronavirus, Lewa said that “a few members of the diaspora have decided these days to return to Burma [Myanmar],” even though conditions have not improved since they fled a few years ago.
A lockdown of Rohingya refugee camps arrived the day the first case in Cox’s Bazar was confirmed — a woman over 60 years old, who had returned form Saudi Arabia on March 13 after performing Umrah. Operations in the camps have been suspended since then, but emergency services regarding food, health, and medicine continue as usual.
Dr. Husni Mubarak Zainal, the medical coordinator with Doctors Without Borders, explained that he is “extremely concerned” about the Rohingya refugees living in the camps, as well as other vulnerable populations in Bangladesh.
Cox’s Bazar district, and the 34 refugee camps within it, are especially at “high risk of exposure,” he explained. “In Cox’s Bazar, around one million refugees are squeezed into just 26 square kilometers. People live side-by-side in overcrowded bamboo shelters where families share one or two rooms, and access to clean water and soap is limited.”
Lewa of the Arakan Project is also very afraid that the spread of the virus in the camps could be “just a matter of time.” She cannot imagine “how disastrous it could be” if that happens.
According to Lewa, “It seems refugees have understood the problem, but it is something they, and aid workers, are really worried about.”
Humanitarian groups have widely distributed soap, increased the number of handwashing facilities, and gone house to house asking refugees not to move between camps and to keep their distance between themselves, somewhat difficult under the circumstances.
Refugees are being informed through speakers, posters, and brochures how people can protect themselves and their families, and what they have to do to seek health care if they present symptoms. But as Lewa pointed out, restrictions on communications are complicating the task.
From the beginning of the current wave of atrocities in 2016, and for many years prior, Rohingya community-based responses to emergencies have been highly effective. But now a mobile phone blackout in Rohingya refugee camps is making things needlessly worse. “Refugees cannot use WhatsApp to communicate to each other, and health workers are also unable to report whether any refugees are experiencing symptoms,” Lewa said.
In September 2019, the country’s telecommunications regulatory body ordered operators to shut down mobile services in the camps, citing security fears and illegal mobile use. Local sim cards are forbidden to refugees; now only Bangladeshis with national identity cards are allowed to use them. If the authorities find a Rohingya person on the phone, the device will be confiscated. Refugees are not only unable to connect to the internet, but cannot even make any calls.
Access to sim cards has been vital for Rohingyas for years, Matthew Smith, CEO of the NGO Fortify Rights, explained.
“Rohingya were connected not only in the camps, but also internationally,” he said. “There are WhatsApp groups, some quite large, and communications on a variety of other platforms, all used to keep each other informed.”
It has been speculated that the government crackdown on mobile phone use in the camps could be in response to incidents involving Rohingya refugees several months ago. It all started with an attempt by the Bangladesh government to repatriate Rohingya refugees to Myanmar in August, which failed because the refugees felt it was still unsafe to return.
A few day later, thousands of Rohingya refugees participated in a peaceful gathering commemorating the second anniversary of the Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing campaign in Rakhine state. Afterward, a local politician was killed, allegedly by Rohingya refugees, and officers killed four Rohingyas who they claimed were involved in the murder.
The Bangladeshi government’s construction of fencing to enclose the Rohingya refugee camps also has created “heightened distress and fear among Rohingya refugees, posing greater risks to public health and humanitarian access” according to Fortify Rights.
With COVID-19, and the cyclone and monsoon season approaching, communication will be indispensable. Smith explained that if the virus reaches the camps, “it would likely spread fast, and — if it did so — exponentially.”
If that happens, it would overwhelm existing health practitioners, who are already working under difficult circumstances and with limited resources. “Many Rohingya already suffer from pre-existing health issues, and they would be at particular risk,” Smith said.
For him, “access to information is not only a right that extends to Rohingya refugees, it’s also essential to overall public health.” And protecting the rights of refugees and preventing an outbreak of disease “go hand-in-hand” to prevent this from happening.
Ana Salvá is a freelance journalist based in Southeast Asia.