As developing countries around the world scramble to secure enough COVID-19 vaccines to inoculate their own citizens, vulnerable refugee populations like the Rohingya remain at especially high risk. Over 1 million Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar from successive waves of violence against the Muslim minority ethnic group since the 1990s.
Most have landed in Bangladesh, corralled into overcrowded camps around Cox’s Bazar, as well as the previously uninhabited island of Bhasan Char. Others have set sail on leaky vessels to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, or made their way to India and Pakistan. While the governments of Bangladesh and Malaysia have pledged to vaccinate the refugees, they have yet to release detailed plans on how they plan to do so. This constitutes a significant risk not only to the refugees themselves, but also to the citizens of these countries.
Cox’s Bazar, the region in Bangladesh where most Rohingya refugee camps are located, has so far managed to fend off the worst-case scenario. The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed approximately 400 cases and 10 deaths out of more than 866,000 Rohingya in the 10 square miles of Cox’s Bazar. However, testing efforts have fallen short. WHO has collected only 30,000 tests in Cox’s Bazar since March 2020 – only around 3 percent of the population there. Some Rohingya in the camps fear that they might be detained or possibly killed if they show COVID-19 symptoms.
Another public health risk is that the government of Bangladesh has shipped over 7,000 Rohingya, some forcibly, to Bhasan Char, an uninhabited island in the Bay of Bengal which lacks basic services, including running water. Without health infrastructure on the island, medical emergencies will require a three-hour journey from the island to the mainland. The island is also frequently battered by cyclones and prone to severe flooding, which would further exacerbate public health challenges for the Rohingya who are forced to live there.