The Rohingya are among the world’s most persecuted ethnic minorities — haunted by the past and denied a future.
As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the world and into their squalid refugee camps, they’re confronted by another grim prospect: separation from loved ones.“There’s Covid-19, it’s quite clearly spreading in the camps. But the Rohingya will not go to get tested,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Asia at Human Rights Watch.
“They are afraid of being taken from their family, they are afraid of being isolated, they’re afraid of being taken to this horrible detention island called Bhasan Char — which is in the middle of nowhere… It’s like a Rohingya Alcatraz,” he said, referring to the former island prison in San Francisco.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority from Rakhine state in western Myanmar — formerly known as Burma. Most fled their homes after the military launched a brutal crackdown in August 2017.
Today, nearly a million Rohingya refugees live in cramped, temporary housing in the Bangladesh district of Cox’s Bazar, home to one of the world’s largest settlement camps.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees told CNBC there were 50 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 5 deaths among the refugees in Cox’s Bazar as of July 1. Testing was ramped up to 700 a day, and about 0.06% of the 860,000 Rohingya in the camps have been tested. Additionally, Myanmar’s health ministry reported 10 confirmed cases in Rakhine, UNHCR said.
It’s hard to know the true extent of the outbreak among the Rohingya, argued Robertson.
“People are refusing to go. I think the only people you’re really seeing that turn up and get tested are the people who are gravely ill, and have no other choice … they need to get treatment or they may die.”
“We have noticed a decline in the number of refugees approaching health facilities for COVID-19 symptoms in the last weeks,” said Louise Donovan, a communications officer at UNHCR. She said there appears to be “fear and anxiety among refugees,” as those who volunteered to be tested had to be isolated for precautionary reasons.
Additionally, an internet shutdown in camps in Bangladesh and some towns in Rakhine “has meant that people in some villages are unaware of the Covid-19 outbreak,” Human Rights Watch said.