The Bangladesh government’s internet blackout and phone restrictions at Rohingya refugee camps are obstructing humanitarian groups from addressing the COVID-19 threat, Human Rights Watch said today. The shutdown is risking the health and lives of over a million people, including nearly 900,000 refugees in Cox’s Bazar and the Bangladeshi host community by hindering aid groups’ ability to provide emergency health services and rapidly coordinate essential preventive measures.
“The Bangladesh government is in a race against the clock to contain the spread of coronavirus, including in the Rohingya refugee camps, and can’t afford to waste precious time with harmful policies,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities should lift the internet shutdown, which is obstructing crucial information about symptoms and prevention, or end up risking the lives of refugees, host communities, and healthcare workers.”
Internet access in the camps has been shut down since September 2019, following a directive from the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission. Though the authorities described the decision as a security measure, this broad restriction on communication was neither necessary nor proportionate, both of which are required under international human rights law.
Aid workers and community leaders rely on WhatsApp and other internet-based communication tools to coordinate emergency services and share important information in the camps. The shutdown prevents effective dissemination of coronavirus information as well as impeding aid workers’ ability to conduct “contact tracing” to contain transmission of the virus. A community health volunteer said their group had used WhatsApp to connect medical supporters, but “[now] we cannot connect to provide our services.”
Bangladesh has begun lockdown in all 34 Rohingya refugee settlements in the country’s southern district of Cox’s Bazar as part of its effort to stem coronavirus pandemic.
Authorities have asked more than one million members of the persecuted Rohingya community, who have migrated from Myanmar’s Rakhine province, to stay inside their makeshift camps until further notice.
“Since this morning [Wednesday] we have started s lockdown in all Rohingya camps as per guidelines issued by the government due to the prevailing scare over coronavirus outbreak,” said Md Mahbub Alam Talukder, Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC).
Citing the global spread of coronavirus Talukder told Anadolu Agency: “It will be a very difficult job for us to control the situation if coronavirus spreads in the crowded Rohingya camps.”
He said it was because of this fear that we are asking Rohingya to stay home. “We are fully aware and urge them [Rohingya] to stay home and not move except for emergency needs,” he said.
According to John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre, Bangladesh has so far reported 39 cases of coronavirus with five deaths. Thousands of others have been kept under home quarantine to stem the spread of the lethal virus.
Assuring continuation of emergency services despite lockdown Talukdar said that his office has pleaded for the restoration of internet services in the Rohingya camps.
“Already a letter from Foreign Ministry has been sent to Home Ministry, seeking resumption of internet services in the Rohingya camps,” he said, adding that the services will be restored in the shortest possible time.
The sewage-soaked alleys and cramped canvas and bamboo shacks that house one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are a horrifying scene for experts watching the coronavirus pandemic creep closer.
The wretched conditions in the camps, where most of the stateless Muslims arrived in 2017 to escape a Myanmar military clampdown across the nearby border, are fertile ground for any disease.
The public in other countries are being told to keep two metres apart. That is the width of most paths in Kutupalong, the world’s biggest refugee camp with 600,000 Rohingya, that are clogged each day with people out on the daily hunt for food and fuel.
Masks that have become a daily essential in much of the world are rarely seen. Sanitiser is unheard of.
Each shack is barely 10sq m and they are overcrowded with up to 12 people.
“You can hear your next-door neighbour breathing,” said one aid worker.
Social distancing is “virtually impossible” in the camps, Bangladesh head of Doctors Without Borders Dr Paul Brockman said.
“The scale of the challenge is immense. Vulnerable populations such as the Rohingya will likely be disproportionately affected by Covid-19,” the illness caused by new coronavirus, he told AFP.
Bangladesh has reported only a handful of coronavirus deaths and less than 50 cases but the public and experts fear there are many more.
The Rohingya barely know about the disease as the government cut off most Internet since late last year under measures to clamp down on the refugees.
Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) in Cox’s Bazar Mahbub Alam Talukder confirmed the development
All activities, except for emergency services, will be suspended at all 34 Rohingya camps of Cox’s Bazar from Wednesday in a bid to fight the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) till Tuesday confirmed a total of 39 coronavirus cases in the country.
Covid-19, a new strain of coronavirus, so far has killed more than 16,500 people in over 190 countries and territories including four from Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) in Cox’s Bazar Mahbub Alam Talukder confirmed the development to Dhaka Tribune on Tuesday.
He said: “All activities will be suspended in every camp from tomorrow [Wednesday]. However, emergency services with respect to food, health, and medicine will continue as usual.
“All gatherings, including religious ones, will be barred. We have also asked the camp residents to pray at home rather than in mosques.”
RRRC Talukder, the top government official on the ground in relation to the Rohingya crisis, also said: “Schools and madrasas will also remain closed.
“The message is very clear; always stay at home for the security of yourself and others.”
RRRC Talukder also said that apart from those involved with emergency services, no one would be allowed to go out of the camps and come in.
“We have also decided not to allow any new foreigner to enter the camp. This will not be applicable to those who had been working here before the beginning of the crisis,” he added.
Rohingya leaders have been spreading the message for the community to be tested for the Covid-19 virus after 2,000 of them were said to have attended the tabligh gathering at Masjid Jamek in Sri Petaling.
They disputed the figure, saying that at most hundreds could have attended the event.
Rohingya Society of Malaysia (RSM) president Bo Ning Maing said a voice and video message has been shared with the community via the WhatsApp messaging application and on Facebook, urging those concerned to go for the test.
“Many in the community are unable to read and write, so this is the most effective way to get the message across,” he added.
As of February, there were 101,010 Rohingya refugee and asylum seekers registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia.
Rafik Shah Ismail, a Rohingya community leader with the Human Aid Selangor Society, said he got to know that only several members of the community attended the event.
“I’m not sure how the big number came about because most of our community cannot afford to take a day off from work,” he said.
He added that he had gone door-to-door to send flyers to the community in Gombak on the importance of getting tested for the virus.
Rohingya refugees in India can now document their life stories in a comic book, thanks to a collaborative effort by two non-government organisations based in the capital New Delhi.
The comic titled Rendered Stateless Not Voiceless was put together by World Comics India, a collective that promotes comics as a communication and empowerment tool for the marginalised section of society.
The idea was formed as a collaboration between the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative (RHRI) and World Comics India, driven by the idea that a “comic book can be used as a medium to give a voice to the voiceless”.
“There are almost 70 stories narrated and sketched by participants themselves including myself. The idea is to create awareness of our life stories with first-hand stories shared by the participants,” Ali Johar, education coordinator at RHRI, told Al Jazeera.
“As most of the Rohingya refugees have no way of sharing their stories, the book gives them a platform to share them, as well as have ownership of their own stories in the book,” Johar, 25, told Al Jazeera.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently 17,500 Rohingya registered as refugees in India. However, the real figure could be higher, with Indian media putting the figure at about 40,000.
Threat of deportation
India’s Hindu nationalist government, which views Muslim-majority Rohingya as “illegal immigrants” and a security threat, has pledged to deport them back to Myanmar where they faced persecution. New Delhi maintains good relations with Naypyidaw.
The UN refugee agency and Rohingya community leaders in Malaysia are stepping up efforts to get refugees who attended a Muslim gathering to come forward for COVID-19 checks, after cases linked to the event jumped across Southeast Asia.
More than 670 infections in the region have been linked to the gathering last month at a mosque on the outskirts of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. A total of 16,000 people of many nationalities attended the four-day event.
Reuters reported on Thursday that authorities were trying to track down an estimated 2,000 Rohingya who had attended the gathering. Rights groups said “several hundred” Rohingya attended and that the overall estimate included other refugees, such as ethnic Burmese Muslims.
Refugees are considered illegal immigrants in Malaysia and activists say they may fear coming forward for testing.
“We have increased awareness and have advised the Rohingya to get tested,” said Bo Min Naing, president of the Rohingya Society in Malaysia, estimating that 400 to 600 Rohingya attended the gathering.
He has been sending voice messages to fellow Rohingya on the coronavirus and urging them to get tested if they attended the gathering on Feb 27 to Mar 1.
Rights activist Lilianne Fan said leaders of the Burmese Muslim community living in Malaysia have agreed to get participants of the mosque gathering to present themselves for testing, though some “do fear arrest and other repercussions”.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on its website it had requested the government not to arrest any refugee or asylum seeker without documents or with expired documents as the agency had postponed all appointments, amid two-week movement curbs in the country to contain the spread of the virus.
Malaysian authorities are scrambling to track down about 2,000 Rohingya men who attended a religious gathering that has led to a big spike in Covid-19 cases across South-East Asia, a security source and two other people told Reuters.
More than 100,000 Rohingya live in Malaysia after fleeing from Myanmar, but they are considered illegal immigrants. Their status would likely make many of them reluctant to identify themselves to get tested for the virus even if they showed symptoms, other sources, in the Rohingya community, said.
Malaysia’s search for the Rohingya highlights the challenge for governments trying to track the virus among communities living without official papers and wary of authorities.
The religious gathering late last month at a mosque on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur was attended by some 16,000 people, including the Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, one source said.
As well as the Rohingya, about 1,500 Muslims from across Asia attended.
Nearly 600 Covid-19 cases in South-East Asia have been linked to the gathering, including 513 in Malaysia, 61 in Brunei, 22 in Cambodia, at least five in Singapore and two in Thailand.
Malaysia has 790 virus cases in all.
Malaysian authorities have been tracking down the participants but say they have been unable to find about 4,000 of them.
“They have gone back to their families across Malaysia, it has become difficult for us to contact them. Many are afraid of admitting that they attended, they fear they will get into problems with the authorities,” one of the sources, who works with the refugee community, said.
“The government is concerned that if they don’t come forward, the infection might spread further.”
Around a million Rohingya in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, along with aid workers, are likely to be among the worst sufferers if coronavirus spreads in the region, feared experts.
Lack of medical facilities, extremely unhygienic living conditions, and population density of the camps can cause havoc in case of a virus outbreak, they said.
Catalin Bercaru, spokesperson for the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Bangladesh, said refugees across the globe, including in Bangladesh, live in overcrowded camps or settlements that pose a greater risk of infection from communicable diseases like Covid-19.
Tariq Adnan, communication officer of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Bangladesh, said the Rohingyas already live in unsanitary conditions and their access to healthcare is severely compromised. Therefore, it is more difficult to implement preventive measures there.
Noting that there was no reported case of Covid-19 infection in the camps, the international organisations – the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), WHO, and MSF — emphasised on equipping local hospitals with adequate resources and expanding test facilities to tackle the potential outbreak.
Mostafa Mohammad Sazzad Hossain, assistant communication officer of UNHCR, said any coronavirus suspect at the Rohingya camps would be kept in temporary isolated areas until referred to pre-identified isolation units.
At present, only the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) in Dhaka has the capacity to identify Covid-19 infection. No other healthcare facility in the country is equipped to diagnose Covid-19.
Two-and-a-half years after hundreds of thousands of mainly Muslim ethnic Rohingya fled a campaign of State-led violence, Yanghee Lee said it was no longer enough for the international community to simply monitor grave abuses happening there.
In particular, the Special Rapporteur urged the UN Security Council in New York to establish an international tribunal “to adjudicate the crimes against humanity and war crimes” since 2011.
“This is where the international community must really walk the walk not talk the talk”, she insisted.
Speaking at a press conference in Geneva after presenting her last report to the Human Rights Council at the end of her six-year mandate, Ms. Lee highlighted concerns that Myanmar’s civilian government had done too little to promote democratic rule.
There were still a lot of “old draconian laws” that could be “amended, reformed repealed” by the civilian administration, which rules the country in a power-sharing arrangement with the military, Ms. Lee explained.
Rather than tackle legislative reform, the civilian Government had passed even more repressive measures that had “stifled” freedom of expression.
Nonetheless, it wasn’t too late for its leader, former rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi, to do something about it,” the independent rights expert maintained.
“There is no evidence that shows that the civilian Government is truly genuine about its
commitment towards democracy…but when I said it’s not too late, it’s because the civilian Government still has a lot of power if it exercises its power in the right places.”
In addition to Human Rights Council resolutions condemning abuses in Myanmar and calling for victims’ justice, consternation about the alleged massacre of ethnic Rohingya has also led to recent rulings at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ).