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Why are refugee camps particularly vulnerable?

In March 2020 the UN launched a £2 billion global humanitarian response plan to assist the world’s poorest countries fight the coronavirus pandemic. The UN Secretary General talked of the need to protect the ultra-vulnerable, the millions of people who have been forced to flee their homes and find themselves crammed into refugee camps where:

They do not have homes in which to socially distance or self-isolate.

They lack clean water and soap with which to do that most basic act of self-protection against the virus – washing their hands.

And should they become critically ill, they have no way of accessing a healthcare system that can provide a hospital bed and a ventilator. 

What does this mean for the Rohingya?

Since August 2017 Muslim Rohingya refugees have fled violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar, into Bangladesh. Over 850,000 refugeees are now living in highly congested conditions in 34 refugee camps around Cox’s Bazar the world’s largest refugee settlement.

Alongside the refugees are the host communities, which number around 440,000 people.

There are also large numbers of international aid workers living there.

Has coronavirus been reported on Cox’s bazar?

The Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) brings together the main humanitarian actors who work with Bangladeshi and Rohingya communities. They provide regular updates on the situation in Cox’s Bazar district.

The ISCG reported that as of 5 April 2020 no cases of Covid-19 had been reported in the refugee camps and that one confirmed case of a Bangladeshi returnee from overseas had been reported in the local community in Cox’s Bazar.

What are the risks to the Rohingya?

Humanitarian groups like the International Rescue Committee are concerned that people in refugee camps face a heightened risk of Covid-19. One medical doctor, working with the IRC in Cox’s Bazar, explained the dangers: “they live in very congested camp conditions, also their hygiene and sanitation facilities are not adequate. It is really difficult for them to practice social distancing.”

The UN has warned that, given the conditions in the camps in Bangladesh and the high levels of vulnerability among the population, “the severity of the possible impact of the virus on refugess is of major concern”.

How are the camps preparing?

On 25 March the Bangladesh Government said only essential services and assistance will continue in the camps until further notice. This means schools, shops and community centres have closed and all gatherings have been suspended. All health and nutrition facilities, food and gas distribution and hygiene promotion and distribution will remain open.

The ISCG provides regular updates on measures underway in the camps to combat covid-19.  According to the 5 April 2020 update the priority is to establish isolation and treatment facilities, with planning underway to prepare an initial 1,700 beds across the District.

However, Cox’s Bazar lacks facilities to provide intensive care treatment, oxygen supplies and adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health workers. Non-medical grade cloth masks are being made and distributed.

Calls for mobile internet to be restored

One of the main challenges for refugees and aid workers living there is the lack of internet connectivity. The Bangladesh Government imposed restrictions on mobile internet access in Cox’s Bazar in September 2019, citing security concerns.

On 30 March 2020 the Bangladeshi Home Minister confirmed restrictions on 3G and 4G mobile data will remain in place. The following day, on 1 April 2020, fifty human rights organisations, including Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and several British based community groups, wrote a letter to the Bangladeshi Prime Minister calling for the restrictions to be lifted. The letter said “access to information is an essential component of an effective public health response to a pandemic“.

What is the Bangladesh government doing?

The Government issued its National Response Plan for Covid-19 on 16 March 2020. The Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) fully supports the Bangladesh Government’s plan which, it says, includes the refugee population.

On 26 March the Government ordered a nationwide ten-day shut down, later extended to 14 April.

What is the international response?

The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, made clear when launching the £2 billion global humanitarian response fund why supporting those most in need matters:

The world is only as strong as our weakest health system. If we do not take decisive action now, I fear the virus will establish a foothold in the most fragile countries, leaving the whole world vulnerable as it continues to circle the planet, paying no mind to borders.

The humanitarian community, via the ISCG, is calling for more international support for Bangladesh. The ISCG said it is planning an additional appeal alongside the pre-coronavirus 2020 Joint Response Plan for Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis. The Joint Response Plan is a pre-existing plan to support the 1.3 million people in need – both Rohingya refugees and host communities – with a total requirement of $817 million. Details of the new appeal had not been made available at the time of writing.

UK support

On 6 April 2020 the UK announced £21 million to support Bangladesh to fight Covid-19. Of this, more than £10 million is for existing UN and NGO partners to maintain essential humanitarian services and prepare Rohingya and host communities for Covid-19. The British High Commission in Dhaka said this will help establish treatment centres and personal hygiene efforts.

The UK has been a major humanitarian aid donor to the refugees. Baroness Sugg, the International Development Minister, visited Cox’s Bazar and Myanmar in October 2019 and described the condition in the camps as terrible. The International Development Secretary announced a new £81 million package for sustaining the Rohingya refugee operation in Cox’s Bazar in September 2019. This brought the total UK contribution since the start of the crisis in August 2017 to £217 million.

Members of Parliament have also actively engaged with the Rohingya situation. In its September 2019 report, A New Shape of Catastrophe: Two years on from the 2017 Rohingya Crisis, the APPG on the Rights of the Rohingya warned that continued violence and discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar means conditions are still unsafe for refugees to return, putting continued pressure on the camps in Bangladesh.

The Rohingya in Myanmar

Human Rights Watch has warned Rohinga camps are “Covid-19 tinderboxes” and that Myanmar is ill-equipped to cope with the potential caseload. The UN says about 128,000 Rohingya are being “effectively detained” in government camps in Rakhine state in Myanmar.

A more detailed analysis of how the Rohingya refugee crisis developed and the response of the UK and international community can be found in Library briefing paper Myanmar: January 2020 update.


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