By Inmanuel Chayan, Caritas Bangladesh communications officer based in Cox’s Bazar

One of the key measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic is social distancing, yet the poorest people on the planet don’t have the luxury of space to do this.

The high density living conditions in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh are having a serious impact on the physical and psychological well-being of the refugees, especially on children, women and refugees with disabilities.

The Rohingya community face not only the challenge of living in overcrowded and flimsy shelters with up to ten or more people in one room, but they also use communal latrines and water facilities and space is limited where they receive food distributions. They cannot maintain the proper distancing or hygiene measures to provide effective prevention against the spread of the coronavirus.

They are a people whose lives are dominated by a number of emergency situations: the violent and traumatic uprooting from their homeland in Myanmar, the health emergencies such as dysentery and pox which they face in the camps and the repeated climate emergency they face when cyclones batter Bangladesh. This is even without considering the global pandemic which is now bearing down on Bangladesh.

Heavy rainfall is weakening the shelters in the camps. Photo by Chayan/Caritas Bangladesh

Meanwhile, heavy rainfall is weakening the shelters where the Rohingya take refugee, there is a high fear of landslide and flood, a fear of eviction and unresolved tensions between Rohingya and the host community people.

COVID-19 in Rohingya camps

The first case of COVID-19 was found in the Rohingya settlements on 14th May 2020. As of 21st June 2020 there was a total of 4 deaths and 45 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the Rohingya population.

But we don’t know how accurate these numbers are as there is a lack of expertise in the testing centres. The medical facilities in the Rohingya camp are not really enough considering the size of the population and only primary health care facilities are available in most cases. The Bangladeshi government has limited the activities in the camps since 25th March.

Initially, Rohingya who were critically ill with COVID-19 were referred to Ukhiya General Hospital or Cox’s Bazar Medical College. Now it is not possible because these hospitals are facing challenges to provide treatment facilities to the local people.

Many rumours about COVID-19 are floating inside the camps and far too few people have the proper information. Caritas Bangladesh is working across the country and in Cox’s Bazaar camps to provide prevention messaging to tens of thousands of people. We have been providing soap and hygiene kits to thousands of family, as well as installing handwashing stations in public places and near toilets.

In order to ensure coronavirus messaging reaches as much of the community as possible, Caritas Bangladesh trains staff and volunteers, consults the community, establishes listening groups and shows awareness films. We distribute child-friendly flyers to ensure all members of the community are armed with information.

We ensure the Rohingya people now know how to deal with the pandemic. They know that they need to wash their hands frequently, but a big challenge is the poor water supply and sanitation facilities at the camp.

Recently, the Rohingya people have expressed serious concerns about the rainy season causing a deterioration in camp roads, paths, and stair networks thereby impacting access to necessary services and amplifying a multitude of protection issues such as physical and sexual abuse. Annual monsoon preparations in the camps were made more challenging this year by the spread and risks posed by the COVID-19.

The rights of the Rohingya community

Rohingya refugees have continued to undertake dangerous sea journeys organised by traffickers and smugglers. Bangladesh authorities in the last month rescued and safely disembarked nearly 700 Rohingya refugees following a long and harrowing journey at sea.
The international community must recognise the rights of the Rohingya community for justice to be done and for anything to change in their lives. The Rohingya must have their rights to live in their own land freely and with dignity recognised and be safely and peacefully repatriated to Myanmar.

Nur and her friends in Caritas child-friendly space. Photo by Chayan/Caritas Bangladesh

Rohingya such as 12-year-old Nur has a right to an education in her mother tongue and to live in her homeland. Refugees such as Jubayer, 72, would like the right to die peacefully in his homeland and be buried with other family members.

As yet another emergency hits these vulnerable people, we must work on all levels to ensure there is an end in sight to their suffering.