Concerns Grow on Coronavirus Spread in Bangladeshi Refugee Camps

Ellen McVeigh

4th June 2020


While the coronavirus pandemic creates chaos and trauma in communities across the globe, rather than being a ‘great equaliser’, the virus, in many cases, is causing the greatest harm to those already vulnerable. Many of those at risk throughout the world are those living in cramped conditions, those living in homes which are unsafe, those living without access to decent sanitation, and those living with chronic health conditions caused by poverty. The Rohingya Muslims are one group identified by organisations such as Oxfam and WHO as being at risk of coronavirus spreading rapidly through their community. In 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were forced to cross the border into Bangladesh while fleeing violence in their native Myanmar. In attacks which have been described as ‘ethnic cleansing’ by the United Nations, nationalist militias torched villages and displaced thousands. The leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her years of pro-democracy resistance, has been criticised for failing to condemn this violence against an ethnic group within the state. There are now around one million Rohingya living in refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh.


In mid-May, WHO confirmed the first cases of COVID-19 in these refugee camps. Most residents of the camps live in cramped, multi-generational huts, with four to five people living together in one small room. The sanitation, sewage facilities, and water supply are inadequate, and since 2017 there have been outbreaks of contagious diseases such as cholera and diphtheria. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, aid organisations such as Oxfam and CAFOD have been getting soap and face masks to residents, and 6000 handwashing stations have been installed. Despite these efforts, adequate personal hygiene is still out of reach for many Rohingya living in the camps.


“At the end of April, a group of around 500 Rohingya refugees asked for international intervention after they were stranded on cramped boats for several weeks”


As well as the technical difficulties in providing services to a million people living in vast camps, there are also issues of cultural dissonance which leads to many Rohingya ignoring the advice. The marginalisation which they have experienced in Myanmar often means that they have little experience of or trust in public health, with many choosing to rely instead on traditional medicines and guidance from spiritual leaders. Reaching such isolated communities is aided by a culturally sensitive delivery of information, helped by working alongside local religious leaders. While there are still only a few cases, there are fears that the conditions in the camps could lead to the virus spreading quickly throughout the population.


Outside of these Bangladeshi camps, other Rohingya refugees are facing obstacles created by the coronavirus pandemic. At the end of April, a group of around 500 Rohingya refugees asked for international intervention after they were stranded on cramped boats for several weeks. Fleeing the dire conditions in the Bangladesh refugee camps, they became stranded at sea after being turned away from Malaysia and then prevented from returning to Bangladesh. Both governments cited the coronavirus as an excuse to close their borders, as worries grew that lockdowns to curb the spread of the virus could be mobilised against those seeking refuge across borders. Within Malaysia, a country which does not recognise refugees, the containment of the coronavirus was used as an excuse to round up and detain hundreds of undocumented migrants. The UN has condemned campaigns such as this, which claim to be an attempt at reducing the spread of the virus, but which could, in fact, aid its spread as it pushes vulnerable communities into hiding, and make it unlikely that they will seek treatment. The ‘stay home’ messaging employed by many countries across the world means very little to those forced to flee.


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