Rohingya Refugee Camps Likely a Catastrophic Covid-19 Incubator

Already riddled with diarrhea, diptheria and other diseases, camps face disaster

Photo Credit: Al Jazeera

By: Michele Penna

The first case of Covid-19, the enormously contagious coronavirus, has been recorded in Cox’s Bazar, the narrow district in southern Bangladesh where hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar are crammed into shacks, with little clean water and insufficient, non-nutritious food.

The camps on the edges of Myanmar’s borders are what you would picture as an ideal place for infectious diseases to flourish. And they are. Diarrhea, chickenpox and diphtheria have all been diagnosed there. Now, as Covid-19 cripples some of the wealthiest and best-equipped health care systems in the world, fear of what could happen should the virus spread inside the camps is growing. It appears inevitable. As many as 56 cases have been recorded in Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingyas have sought refuge although that is probably a tiny fraction of the real number. Xinhua reported on April 2 that just 141 cases had been tested that day in a country of 16.7 million people. 

Subjected to decades of deprivation, the Muslim minority from Rakhine State – also referred to as Arakan – has witnessed two large-scale outbreaks of violence in 2012 and 2016/2017, when hordes were forced to cross into Bangladesh. Cut off from their villages, over 900,000 people have now settled in a series of sprawling camps, the largest in the world. 

Fifty aid organizations headed by Human Rights Watch on April 1 issued an open letter to Bangladeshi authorities protesting barbed-wire fences strung around the camps that risk not only harming refugees but impeding the response to the pandemic. The construction, the organizations wrote, “have created heightened distress, fear, and mistrust among Rohingya refugees, posing greater risks to public health and needless obstructions to humanitarian access as it will become harder for refugees to enter and exit the camp for services.”

Conditions are dire enough without the virus. According to Save the Children, 40 percent of Rohingya child refugees suffer from stunting due to malnutrition – but they are relatively secure compared to Rakhine State, where Rohingyas are not recognized as citizens and risk facing communal violence.

That possibility is further increased by the volatile situation in Myanmar, where the world’s longest-running civil war is still ongoing. Severe clashes between the Arakan Army, an ethnic rebel group drawing support from the majority Buddhist population of the region, and central government troops have taken place in recent months. Even an appeal from the United Nations for an immediate ceasefire worldwide has gone unheeded, with two villagers losing their lives in an alleged bombing on Monday. Military forces denied the accident, but did confirm that other clashes took place that day.

What little security could be afforded by the camps is now under threat as an invisible enemy approaches “Sadly, it is highly likely that Covid-19 will spread to refugee and IDP camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar,” said Daniel Sullivan, Senior Advocate for Human Rights at Refugees International. “Covid is a looming disaster for refugee and IDP populations. The fact that people in displacement camps are often cramped in close quarters and already facing underlying health issues and poor health infrastructure means that Covid is likely to spread,” he argues.

Communications blockades implemented on both sides of the border hardly help. Last September, Bangladesh authorities curbed 3G and 4G services to the Rohingya camps, supposedly out of security reasons. In February, internet access was cut to townships in northern Rakhine, too, thus limiting the ability to spread information to local communities.

Nor is western Myanmar the only critical front in the fight against coronavirus. “It is not just the refugee camps in Cox's Bazar that are at risk,” said John Quinley, Senior Human Rights Specialist with Fortify Rights, referring to the areas most affected by conflict. “There are internally displaced people camps throughout Myanmar in places like Kachin, Shan, and Rakhine that are at risk of the virus spreading like wildfire.” 

According to the United Nations, last summer there were 138 sites in Kachin State hosting as many as 97,806 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and a further 9,048 in neighboring Shan State. With access to the advanced medical care needed to treat complications being utopia and even basic social distancing difficult to imagine, it is in these places that Covid’s fury may hit hardest.

Even in border areas where conditions are relatively peaceful, the scars of war remain. Take, for instance, the hills of Karen State, marred by endemic conflict between the military and ethnic rebels. Since the Karen National Union, the main ethnic outfit operating in the region, signed a National Ceasefire Agreement with the central government in 2015, most fighting has ended. But fear of the military and uncertainty about the future endure among the refugees and displaced communities.

When Asia Sentinel visited Ee Tu Hta, an IDP camp on the Burmese side of the Salween River, it found a near-complete lack of facilities - including medical ones - and deep-seated distrust of the Burmese military. IDPs of all ages and provenience repeatedly argued that although they might have little prospects in the camps, they felt they did not wish to move back given the presence of troops in their hometowns.

“Covid-19 is very dangerous. If we do not follow the protection guidelines from the World Health Organization and the government it will be able to spread quickly,” contended Saw Nanda Hsue, advocacy coordinator for Karen Human Rights Group, a local Karen organization, adding: “It is also very dangerous for Myanmar because it is a developing country that has poor healthcare services.”

Michele Penna is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel