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.
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.
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.”
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 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.
The world faces a humanitarian crisis of historic proportions — and one that doesn’t involve the coronavirus. Over the last decade, global displacement of people from their homes due to war or political instability has grown from about 44 million to more than 71 million, which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says far surpasses the estimated 60 million people displaced by World War II.
Much of that sudden growth is the result of the horrific Syrian civil war, which has sent 6.7 million people — roughly the population of Washington state — fleeing their homes, many of them squatting in the neighboring nations of Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. And that doesn’t include most of the 800,000 people who fled Idlib Province in recent months as Turkish and Syrian forces (with Russian help) waged war in northern Syria.
But it is not just Syria. Millions of people have also fled violence and instability in northern and sub-Saharan Africa, including 2.3 million people uprooted in civil-war-torn South Sudan alone. Afghanistan, where the U.S. has been mired in war for a generation, accounts for another 2.7 million displaced people.
Anti-Muslim policies in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar have uprooted more than 1 million Rohingya, mostly from Rakhine state, many of them now living in squalor in neighboring Bangladesh. Corruption, economic hardship (propelled in part by climate change) and deadly gang activity in Central America have sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing. The economic meltdown and political crisis in Venezuela dating back to Hugo Chavez’s rise to power in 1999 have similarly pushed an estimated 4 million people out of the country.