Rohingya leaders have urged Bangladesh to lift an internet ban imposed on a million refugees in the city of Cox’s Bazar, warning that rumours and panic over Covid-19 is deterring people from getting tested.
Limits on communication are exacerbating already dire conditions for the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, who live in cramped bamboo huts with as many as eight family members to a room, and are dependent on communal taps and toilets. In some areas, basics such as soap are lacking.
Aid agencies in the city in south-east Bangladesh, 20 miles from the border with Myanmar, have warned repeatedly that the virus could thrive in the camps and that medical facilities would be unable to cope. As of 10 June, 35 refugees have tested positive for Covid-19, according to the World Health Organization, while three have died. In total, 30 are in quarantine, though it is feared that there are more undetected cases.
The outbreak has coincided with flu season, adding to confusion over symptoms, but community members say that people are avoiding going to clinics because they are worried about being moved to isolation facilities.
Last week, two people fled quarantine because they believed they would be sent to centres far from their families, according to reports.
Many of the Rohingya refugees sheltering in Cox’s Bazar fled to Bangladesh in 2017, following a military crackdown in Myanmar on its minority Muslim population, which the UN has since said was carried out with “genocidal intent”. After three years in the camps, with people unable to access education or build livelihoods, conditions have become increasingly desperate. Since the start of the year, many have attempted to flee Cox’s Bazar by embarking on dangerous boat journeys to Malaysia, 1,000 miles away. They have then been left stranded at sea for months as countries respond to the coronavirus pandemic by tightening their borders.
The ink was barely dry on a statement by Southeast Asian governments pledging to leave “no one behind” in the coronavirus pandemic when reports of hundreds of Rohingya refugees adrift in the Andaman Sea emerged in early April.
But instead of showing solidarity, the countries demurred on sending out search and rescue missions or granting access. When one of the boats approached Malaysia hoping to land, the navy pushed it back—giving the desperate passengers food but refusing to tow them to land. The boats lingered at sea for two months before nearly 400 emaciated refugees were rescued by Bangladesh on April 15. Another boat with almost 300 Rohingyas languished in Bangladeshi waters for weeks before its navy reluctantly rescued them on May 7. Calls by Dhaka for more support from Southeast Asia have fallen on deaf ears. In the meantime, pushed out by the ongoing persecution and violence in Myanmar and hardship in the Bangladeshi camps, the Muslim minority continues to flee by boat.
The Malaysian government points to the coronavirus threat as justification for turning the refugees away. Bangladesh is asking why it should again be its job to come to the Rohingyas’ rescue, calling for Western countries to act instead of chastising others. But while people are starving, there is no time for whataboutism. Human rights organizations have called the refusal to help a “death sentence” that might turn the Andaman Sea into a “graveyard.”
Such repudiations are not new for the Rohingya or for other victims of human rights violations in Southeast Asia. Among states where human rights abuses are rife, resources often scarce, and the principle of noninterference reigns, governments can count on one another to look the other way when needed.
Aid groups alarmed as Rohingya tests positive for COVID-19 in the densely populated camps, home to a million refugees.
The novel coronavirus has been detected in one of the camps in southern Bangladesh that are home to more than a million Rohingya refugees, according to officials.
An ethnic Rohingya refugee and a local person tested positive for COVID-19, a senior Bangladeshi official and a United Nations spokeswoman said on Thursday. It was the first confirmed case in the densely populated camps as humanitarian groups warned the infection could devastate the crowded settlement.
“Today, they have been taken to an isolation centre after they tested positive,” Mahbub Alam Talukder, the refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told the Reuters news agency by telephone.
The other patient was from the “host population”, a term usually used to refer to locals living outside the camps, the UN spokeswoman said.
“One patient is from the refugee population and the other one from the surrounding host population,” WHO spokesman Catalin Bercaru told the AFP news agency.
Bercaru said “rapid investigation teams” were being deployed to follow up on the two cases, adding that the patients’ contacts are being traced for quarantine and testing.
Coronavirus infections have been gathering pace in recent days in Bangladesh, which has reported 18,863 cases of COVID-19 and 283 deaths so far.
The government enforced a nationwide lockdown on March 26 in an effort to check the spread of the disease. Despite the shutdown, the number of cases has risen sharply in recent days and the daily death toll and new infections hit a record on Wednesday.
More than 670 makeshift dwellings for Rohingya refugees in a camp across Bangladesh’s southern district of Cox’s Bazar were damaged in a fire on Tuesday morning, according to officials.
“We’ve been confirmed about the fire incident and are now assessing the extent of damages officially,” Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) Mahbub Alam Talukder told Anadolu Agency.
No casualties were reported so far, he said. “The UNHCR [UN refugee agency] will repair the damaged tents soon.”
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, UNHCR communication officer in Bangladesh Louise Donovan said that a total of 312 shelters were destroyed, with 362 more partially damaged, as well as small shops and businesses.
“The UNHCR mobilized emergency response teams and coordinated with our partners,” she said, adding that Rohingya refugees themselves had been the first responders. “Thankfully, no loss of life has been reported.”
Rahmat Karim, a Rohingya victim whose house was also damaged in the incident, told Anadolu Agency that more than 500 houses had been damaged.
“Above 500 of our houses were fully damaged and some other houses were partially damaged,” Karim added.
He said: “Five people of us have been wounded during the rescue works. Two or three people are still missing.”
Meanwhile, local media reports said that at least 100 makeshift tents were damaged in a fire at the Kutupalong Rohingya camp in Ukhia Upazila at around 9.00 a.m. local time [0300GMT].
Stranded at sea in hundreds, Rohingya women are being raped by the crew members of the boat and getting pregnant, and on the other hand, the traffickers are extorting additional money promising to get ashore either in Bangladesh or Malaysia exploiting the pushback as a pretext, according to family members.
A recent survivor Nurul Islam said, “The traffickers raped women and some of them got pregnant on the boat.” He also informed that many people died due to trauma, starvation, dehydration and malnutrition.
Brother of another victim currently on the boat adrift told RVision, “The trafficker recently asked from me extra (_0,000) BDT and promised me that they will get ashore in Bangladesh in a few days. On Sunday, I deposited the amount to a local phone number (018__ ____) via bKash service. I had to pay as I was threatened and worried about the safety of my brother.” adding “But he is saying me again that they are watching the situation calming down to head to their preferred destination.”
The source requested us not to disclose the information hidden above and his identity as it could endanger his brother.
Reportedly, the traffickers are not intentionally trying to sneak ashore though it could be possible like the first group of 29, lest they could lose the expected amount as the authorities in both sides are fully aware of the situation.
According to the source, if the authorities detained the trafficking victims, it is a great loss for the traffickers, because the money is conditioned with the safe arrival of the victims.
A group of up to 29 refugees includes women and children have reportedly been transferred to Bhasan Char island in the Bay of Bengal by the Bangladesh authorities. They are believed to be part of a larger group of up to 350 refugees, of whom A small boat carrying 43 people manage to land on coast while others are still stranded at sea.
Around 280 starving Rohingya stranded on a cramped boat in the Bay of Bengal for weeks have been spotted by the Bangladesh Navy and are being taken to a controversial flood-prone island, officials said Thursday.
The boat, one of two trawlers trying to reach Malaysia, was discovered after the navy increased patrols following reports of hundreds of Rohingya adrift at sea.
Authorities say they are likely to have come from Myanmar’s Rakhine state rather than camps in southeastern Bangladesh where nearly one million refugees live, as they did not have identity cards issued by the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
“It is a very tiny boat compared to its 280 passengers. They are starving. The navy has given them food, water and first aid,” a navy official told AFP.
The men, women and children on the boat – found some 40km south of Saint Martin’s Island – were seen squatting with their hands on their knees, he said.
“It (the boat) is being towed by a navy ship to Bhashan Char (island) where they will stay in quarantine,” he added.
The Rohingya will arrive at Bhashan Char on Friday and join 28 others from the persecuted Muslim minority who were taken there on Saturday.
The earlier arrivals – the first group of Rohingya to be sent to the island – were detained after coming ashore from the other boat stuck at sea.
The Rohingya are not being sent on to the mass camps in the southwest as authorities are afraid they might be infected with the coronavirus.
Nearly 400 Rohingya refugees who left Bangladesh by boat nearly two months ago have been rescued at sea, the Bangladesh Coast Guard has said, while confirming that at least 32 people died on the journey.
The Centre has alerted the States to look out for Rohingya refugees who participated in Tablighi Jamaat congregation at Nizamuddin Markaz in Delhi and thereafter slipped away.
The ministry of home affairs (MHA) has sent advisories to chief secretaries of all States that Rohingya Muslims and their contacts may need to be screened for COVID-19 and they may take necessary measures in this regard.
Possibility of Rohingya escaping to Assam and other northeastern States cannot be ruled out given its proximity to Bangladesh and Myanmar, it added.
The MHA said it has been reported that Rohingya Muslims have attended the ijtemas and other religious congregation of Tablighi Jamaat and there is a possibility of their contracting COVID-19.
Rohingya residing in camps in Hyderabad and Telangana had also attended ijtema at Mewar, Haryana and visited Nizamuddin Markaz in New Delhi.
Rohingya living in Sharma Vihar, Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, who had gone for Tablighi Jamaat activities, have not returned to their camps.
The government and the humanitarian community, including the International Organization for Migration (IOM), are now delivering a “wide array of supports” to ensure that health services for both Rohingyas and the host community are ready.
The initiatives are taken recognising the risks that the COVID-19 outbreak could pose to one of the largest refugee camps in the world, IOM said.
No positive case has so far been reported from the congested camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf Upazilas of Cox’s Bazar, said the UN agency.
IOM Bangladesh’s COVID-19 response is supported by Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
All 35 healthcare facilities supported by IOM continue to provide essential primary healthcare services, while implementing partners have trained community health workers and volunteers, UNB reported citing the agency.
This has resulted in 35,399 door-to-door awareness visits, 402 courtyard sessions and 18,553 peer to peer discussions, meaning that with COVID-19 preventive messages have reached 113,087 people.
COVID-19 case management orientations were also held for 260 IOM health staff, including sessions on infection prevention control and risk communication.
Around 600 staff received the general briefing on COVID-19 including ongoing updates, clinical features, preventative measures and travel recommendations.
To ensure staff safety, health facilities were provided with personal protection equipment, including 1,710 disposable gowns, 3,900 examination gloves, 13,500 face masks, 1,020 face shields, 39 gum boots, 630 N95 respirators and 540 liquid hand wash dispensers.
In addition, 31 infrared thermal scanners were distributed for setting up safe triage at health facilities and continued procurement is underway.
Dr Samir Kumar Howlader, IOM National Health Programme Officer, said, “IOM continues to coordinate with the Directorate General of Health Services, Civil Surgeon Office and the World Bank to support government isolation centres at Chakaria and Ramu upazilas in Cox’s Bazar.”
They are defenseless against this pandemic
After all that they have gone through, the Rohingya are, like the rest of us, facing a killer even deadlier than the Myanmar military: The Covid-19 epidemic. And it won’t do Bangladesh any good to allow Cox’s Bazar to become an epicentre of infectious disease.
Two metrics are important in judging the threat of Covid-19: Its infectiousness — how easily it spreads; and its mortality — what proportion of those it infects end up dying from the disease.
At the moment it is difficult to quantify exactly how infectious this disease is. But we know it transmits not just from droplets from coughs or sneezes, but also from aerosols, ie from people just breathing out normally.
We know it can persist on some surfaces up to three days. And we know that virtually no one has any kind of natural immunity to it.
Add to this that some people do not develop symptoms at all, but can still transmit the virus while they are carrying it, and you have a situation where only the most extreme measures of social isolation and societal lockdown of the kind we have seen in China have any hope of working, once the disease appears in a population.
In conditions like those the Rohingya are living in, in Cox’s Bazar, containing the disease will be virtually impossible, once it appears. The Rohingya are living in conditions with more than 100,000 people per square mile, with virtually no space to isolate or quarantine anyone.
No space even to limit human-to-human contact in any significant degree so as to slow down the spread of such an infectious disease. To say nothing of the limited scope for proper hygiene in the public spaces, or the very limited availability of medical supplies — masks, disinfectant gels, etc are effectively out of the question.