At least 32 civilians have been killed in western Myanmar since late last month, the UN says, in fighting between the military and an armed ethnic group.
The UN described the situation as “dire,” and said almost daily fighting was taking place in areas of Rakhine and Chin provinces.
It is unclear whether civilians were targeted or caught in crossfire between security forces and militants.
The Arakan Army militants are ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
Myanmar’s military denies targeting civilians.
Countries including the UK and the US have called for an end to fighting amid the global coronavirus pandemic. More than 80 cases have been reported in Myanmar, along with four deaths.
The Arakan Army declared a month-long ceasefire but this was rejected by the government.
In another development, the authorities in Myanmar say they will free nearly 25,000 inmates as part of a traditional new year prison release.
Among those to be released are hundreds of Rohingya jailed for breaking travel restrictions applied to them because they are not recognised as citizens.
Groups monitoring the country’s notoriously overcrowded prisons have been campaigning to get inmates released early to reduce the likelihood of Covid-19 spreading in jail.
That may help explain why this year’s prisoner amnesty is unusually large, exceeding two releases totalling around 15,000 last year, the BBC’s South-East Asia Correspondent, Jonathan Head, reports.
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.”
The clock is ticking for Myanmar to report to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.
This week, Myanmar’s government issued two presidential directives in response to the ICJ’s January order that the government and military prevent genocide of the Rohingya Muslim ethnic group and preserve evidence of crimes that could amount to genocide.
The court ordered Myanmar to report on its compliance by May 23 and then every six months while Gambia’s case alleging that abuses against the Rohingya violated the Genocide Convention proceeds.
Directive No. 1/2020 orders “all Ministries and all Regions and States Governments” to ensure its staff and others under its control “do not commit” acts defined in the Genocide Convention. Directive No. 2/2020 prohibits “all Ministries and the Rakhine State government” from destroying or removing evidence of genocide.
But preventing genocide isn’t just about stopping military atrocities against the Rohingya, including murder, rape, and torture, which peaked during a 2017 campaign of ethnic cleansing that forced more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.
Many of the government’s existing policies aimed at repressing the Rohingya may be evidence of ongoing genocide in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
In analyzing the genocidal act of “[d]eliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” the United Nations-backed Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar pointed to the “oppressive and systemic restrictions” suffered by the Rohingya, including restrictions on freedom of movement, access to food, livelihood, health care, education, and regular blocking of humanitarian assistance.
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.
In the largest refugee settlement on earth we are holding our breath.
On March 24, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh confirmed a COVID-19 case. It’s now just a matter of time before the outbreak reaches the nearby camps, where hundreds of thousands of Rohinyga refugees like myself are living.
Having already endured a brutal military crackdown and displacement from our homes in Myanmar, we now face the prospect of further, protracted devastation.
A vaccine does not yet exist and could take a year or more to become available, meaning that the scourge of COVID-19 could circulate in the bustling confines of the camps for months.
Social distancing, self-isolation and quarantine are fantasies for Rohingya refugees like me. My family of seven lives inside a 5-meter (16-foot) tarpaulin structure. Such flimsy shelters are the norm in the camps here, which have an average density of more than 100,000 people per square mile.
What makes matters worse is that we rely on aid for survival. People here do not have access to income, and so cannot afford the most basic materials needed to prevent the spread of coronavirus, such as face masks and soap. In the camps, dozens of people share a hand-pump and toilet. Hygiene is a luxury.
Bangladesh, which has recorded 56 cases of the virus and six deaths throughout the country, has imposed a lockdown on Cox’s Bazar, including on the camps.
Rumors are spreading and panic is growing. One night last week, my camp was alive with noise and anxiety. Prayers were chanted at midnight as the Imams and people sought God’s protection.
The coronavirus has overwhelmed the well-equipped health systems of wealthy Western and Asian countries. Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, has no chance of mounting a better response to an outbreak among the 860,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar.
Aid workers are bracing for a possible outbreak of the coronavirus in one of the world’s largest refugee camps in Bangladesh, with officials warning that containing the disease among more than 1 million tightly packed Rohingya Muslims will be a daunting task.
With about 40,000 people per square kilometer (103,600 per square mile) living in plastic shacks side by side, which is more than 40 times the average density of Bangladesh, the refugees are dangerously exposed to the virus.
Each shack is barely 10 square meters (107 square feet) and many are overcrowded with up to 12 people.
There have been no reported cases of infection in the camps yet, but officials remain concerned. The U.N. is not doing any testing for the virus but sends any suspected cases to a government hospital.
“We are doing our best to protect them, but if the virus breaks out it will be a tough job for all of us,” Mohammad Shamsuddoza, the additional refugee, relief and repatriation commissioner of Bangladesh, said by phone from Cox’s Bazar on the border with Myanmar, from where the Rohingya have fled a government crackdown.
He said the 34 camps are a major challenge despite preparations to provide better health care services.
“It’s overcrowded, every family has multiple members,” he said. “So this is practically very difficult to keep them separated.”
Rachel Wolff, senior director for the aid group World Vision in Cox’s Bazar, said “social distancing is almost impossible for families.”
Bangladesh has reported six deaths and 54 cases of COVID-19 amid concerns that the virus could spread in the South Asian country through Bangladeshis who have returned from Italy and other places struggling with the disease.
Many of those returning did not respect social distancing or stay in self-quarantine.
The organizations said such measures pose threat to the safety and well-being of the refugees as well as Bangladesh host communities and aid workers
Some 50 undersigned organizations have urged the Bangladesh government to lift ongoing mobile internet restrictions and halt the construction of barbed wire fencing around the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in light of the growing Covid-19 pandemic.
In an open joint letter to the Bangladesh prime minister, the organizations said such measures pose threat to the safety and well-being of the refugees as well as Bangladesh host communities and aid workers.
Posted on Human Rights Watch website on Wednesday, the letter was signed by Amnesty International, Arakan Rohingya National Organisation, Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, British Rohingya Community UK, Canadian Burmese Rohingya Organization, Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, among others.
The letter said that as the Covid-19 pandemic spreads to Bangladesh, unrestricted access to information via mobile and internet communications is crucial for slowing the transmission of the disease and saving the lives of refugees, humanitarian workers, and the general population of Bangladesh.
“Lifting restrictions will not only enable community health workers to quickly share and receive the most reliable and up-to-date guidance during this evolving pandemic but will also help in coordination with community leaders. We urge you to ensure refugees, local communities, and aid workers alike can freely access mobile and internet communications, in the interest of protecting human rights and public health,” the letter noted.
It also mentioned that since September 2019, Bangladesh authorities have prevented Rohingya refugees from obtaining SIM Cards and directed telecommunications operators to restrict internet coverage in Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar District.
Dozens of international rights groups have called on Bangladesh to lift restrictions imposed on the persecuted Rohingya community living in the Cox’s Bazar refugee settlement.
In a letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, 50 rights organizations said the limitations on movement and internet and mobile coverage could have grave consequences.
“We write to urge you to lift ongoing mobile internet restrictions and halt the construction of barbed wire fencing around the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar District,” read the joint appeal by organizations, including Human Rights Watch and several Rohingya diaspora groups.
Referring to the COVID-19 pandemic, they said the restrictions put refugees, host communities, and aid workers at high risk.
Since September 2019, Bangladeshi authorities have prevented Rohingya refugees from obtaining mobile SIM cards, while operators have been told to restrict internet coverage in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.
The letter said more than 12,000 SIM cards have been taken from refugees since September and, in some instances, authorities have prohibited the use of mobile phones altogether.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads to Bangladesh, unrestricted access to information via mobile and internet communications is crucial for slowing the transmission of the disease and saving the lives of refugees, humanitarian workers, and the general population of Bangladesh,” the groups warned.
Bangladesh has 56 confirmed COVID-19 cases and six deaths so far, while 25 people have recovered, according to data compiled by the U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
All around the world, the numbers are climbing. Each day registers thousands of new cases and lives lost. In Europe, now the epicenter of the pandemic, governments know that the worst is yet to come and are implementing increasingly restrictive measures to enforce social distancing and isolation. In Cox’s Bazar, we have been watching the world and holding our breath for the first confirmed case of Covid-19. With reports of the first confirmed case in the local community in Cox’s Bazar, it’s just a matter of time until the virus reaches the vulnerable population living in cramped conditions in the largest refugee settlement on earth. Thousands of people could die.
One million Rohingya refugees, half of whom are children, have been sheltering in sprawling camps in Cox’s Bazar since August 2017, when they were forced to flee their homes in the face of horrific violence. For almost three years, Rohingya refugees have been telling us they want to go home and resume normal life. They want their children to go to school and for families separated by the conflict to be reunited. So far, international attempts to hold Myanmar accountable for alleged crimes against the Rohingya and improve conditions in Rakhine state have failed spectacularly. In short, it will be years until the Rohingya see justice.
As global life grinds to a halt in a bid to contain the coronavirus, we must remember that for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, their lives have already been in limbo for years; it is their status quo, and it will not end with the containment of coronavirus.
If there is one lesson for refugees that we must take away from this crisis—it must be that refugee camps, and a life in limbo, should never be considered an acceptable long-term solution. We must challenge perceptions that because the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar escaped Myanmar with their lives, they are safe. The coronavirus is a warning to us that there is not endless time to resolve the issues in Myanmar that would finally allow the Rohingya to return home. While the people and Government of Bangladesh have generously continued to shelter the Rohingya for years, life in the camps is not safe.
More than a million Rohingya live cheek to jowl in the world’s largest refugee camp. If the Bangladeshi authorities don’t move expeditiously to prepare for the arrival of COVID-19, it is all but certain to be catastrophic, not only for the Rohingya but Bangladesh and the rest of the world.
I was born and raised in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh but was fortunate to be resettled 11 years ago in the United Kingdom through a United Nations program. I visited my birthplace last December and saw the harrowing conditions of the camp – open sewers, malnutrition, virtually no social services or educational opportunities. I spent two months in the camps living with my grandparents and extended family, where I shared the small bedroom in which I had been born with eight others. I was horrified that the situation for the million refugees was no better than when I left.
Even under the best of circumstances, it is beyond the means of Bangladesh, a poor and densely populated country to provide substantially better conditions. But it is within the power of the government of Bangladesh to lift the internet blackout that has kept the Rohingya largely cut off from the outside world and which leaves them especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
For over six months, Rohingyas have not had access to the internet or cell phone data. They have been cut off from news about their relatives still in Myanmar, international developments concerning their future, and most recently, accurate and reliable information about COVID-19 and the steps countries are taking to address it. They would have no means of knowing, for example, who has tested positive for coronavirus in the camps or how to contact hotlines as opposed to showing up at hospitals which may be already at overcapacity.