Written by Olaide Bankole, Policy Researcher.

I BACKGROUND – The situation during the first wave:

With COVID-19, it is more of the same for the Rohingyas

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 among the Rohingyas was reported in May 2020. This group of people have been displaced by conflict and violence, in open-air refugee camps under poor humanitarian conditions in and around Kutupalong and Nayapara in Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh. 

In Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, a refugee has access to only 24.4 sq of space. Furthermore, 40 persons share one latrine, 600 persons shared one water access point and less than 1 out of 5 persons were reported to have access to healthcare. Many of these camps are also prone to destruction by storms, heavy rainfall, strong winds and flooding from monsoons and cyclones. 

The Government of Bangladesh included Rohingya refugees in its COVID-19 response plan which included methods to engender social distancing. Humanitarian organizations, including the UNHCR, continued to render assistance in refugee camps.

II Changes during the Second Wave:

No outbreaks declared in the camps but the risk remains

Despite initial fears of a devastating outbreak of COVID-19 in the refugee camps, the number of confirmed cases have been lower than expected. 336 persons tested positive for COVID-19 and 9 died between March and October. With an average of 100 tests per day, 55 persons were reported to have tested positive in October. Awareness is being created by UNHCR-supported Community Outreach Members (COMs) about COVID-19 through broadcasted calls, reaching over a 100 thousand persons. The messaging focuses on elderly care, quarantine, and isolation, use of masks, contact tracing and preparedness for monsoon and cyclone. The restoration of internet access, which was earlier restricted, in camps could further help to spread information through audio messages and aid communication among refugee volunteers.

Locked In, Locked Out and In Limbo

Rohingya refugees are beginning to suffer pushback from some of their host countries as the pandemic appears to have heightened a sense of hostility towards them. In Bangladesh, COVID-19 has heightened resentment towards the Rohingyas as they continue to stay in camps without a chance at repatriation in sight.  They are being blamed for the increase in crime rate in Cox’s Bazar, wage decrease, damaging natural land and accused of spreading the virus.

In May, Malaysia, a country that has been a haven for decades, denied entry to hundreds of refugees, many of whom were children, after having spent 2 months at sea. Rohingyas who remain in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps within Myanmar were being subjected to state-sponsored stigmatization because of COVID-19 despite the reported relatively lower number of cases among them.  The pandemic is being used as a pretext by smugglers and local authorities to extort money from the Rohingyas to get access to healthcare, with permission to visit the hospital taking between one and two weeks.

The global economic downturn caused by COVID-19 has led to a shortage of funds for the welfare of refugees. Donor countries are having to grapple with huge economic stimulus packages domestically, thereby affecting their foreign commitments. As at October, the Joint Response Plan (JRP) which includes the UNHCR and the International Office for Migration (IOM) have only received a little over half of the required funds ($574.9 million out of $1 billion) to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the camps for the year. In contrast, in 2017 and 2018, over 70 percent of sought funds were received.

Apart from providing humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees to the tune of US $2.8 billion since 2017; the goal of the Bangladeshi government and its counterparts around the world, including the government of Canada is to ensure “the voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees and others internally displaced to their places of origin or of their own choosing in Myanmar”. Currently, there are 860,000 Rohingya refugees are in Cox’s Bazar district, an estimated 600,000 Rohingya people remain in Rakhine State and continue to face violence and discrimination while the trio of Malaysia, India, Indonesia, and other countries in the region are hosting about 150,000 Rohingya refugees.

III Policy Recommendations:

To prevent further dehumanizing conditions for the People of Rohingya within Myanmar and in the camps,

  1. In the immediate term, the Canadian government should fulfil its financial promises to the Rohingya people and support the effort of the Bangladeshi government to cater to their welfare and prevent outbreaks in the camps.
  2. On a continuous basis, the consular offices of the Canadian government in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Malaysia and other countries in the region should work on changing negative public perception about Rohingya refugees through media campaigns in order to reduce hostilities toward them.
  3. The Canadian government with its allies should intensify efforts to ensure the safe return of Rohingyas to their lands and homes in Myanmar.

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