OPINION: COVID-19 and the Rohingya refugee crisis

by Athena Rayburn | Save the Children International
Tuesday, 24 March 2020 15:25 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A Rohingya refugee girl carries water jars in the Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The first confirmed coronavirus case in Cox’s Bazar exposes how our systems fail the most vulnerable

Athena Rayburn is Save the Children’s humanitarian advocacy manager, based in Cox’s Bazar.

All around the world, the coronavirus numbers are climbing. Each day sees thousands of new cases and lives lost. In Cox’s Bazar we have been watching the world and holding our breath for the first confirmed case of COVID-19. And now it’s happened. With reports of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 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. 

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.

Life in a refugee camp 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 we don’t have 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.

Children, in particular girls, are at a high risk of exploitation, violence and trafficking. Rohingya refugees do not have access to livelihood opportunities to help them support their families.

We are now witnessing the impact that coronavirus is having in communities with strong health systems where people can social distance and wash hands, yet this virus has still brought them to their knees. In the densely packed camps of Cox’s Bazar, options for social distancing or self-isolation are remote. Even simple hygiene practices such as regular hand-washing become complicated when access to clean water is severely limited.

The government of Bangladesh and humanitarian agencies have sprung into action. Rohingya refugees are included in the government’s national plan to respond to COVID-19. Rohingya volunteers are mobilizing throughout the camps to spread hygiene and prevention messaging. Volunteers from the host community are being trained too, supporting everything from delivering awareness trainings to basic medical treatment.

Read more: Women in Bangladesh promote hygiene in refugee camps amid coronavirus fears

The humanitarian agencies in Cox’s Bazar have already stripped back to essential-only services like healthcare and food distribution. This is a necessary step to ensure we are reducing the chances of transmission but this decision too will come at a cost. Just two months ago the Bangladeshi government approved the use of the Myanmar school curriculum in the camps, but children’s education will now have to be suspended. Our child-friendly spaces are closed and may be repurposed for medical use if needed. Rohingya children are now not only at risk from COVID-19 but will have to face this pandemic without access to their regular support systems or safe spaces to play.

We will do whatever we can with the government of Bangladesh and Rohingya refugees to protect them from COVID-19. But the fact remains, Rohingya children should not be living in these camps. They should not have to fight a global pandemic with the bare minimum needed to survive.

The coronavirus has exposed how our systems fail the most vulnerable. Our global mechanisms for accountability and the protection of human rights have failed the Rohingya so far – it is absolutely essential that we do not fail them again.

Only a global response will stop the spread of the virus everywhere. This means the international community must step up to offer medical support, testing kits, share data and provide much needed funding to support the response.

When the dust settles and the borders re-open – we cannot go back to ‘business as usual’, we cannot assume we have endless time to resolve this crisis, that Rohingya children can wait forever. They must be afforded a future of hope and opportunity, like every child deserves.

We may not have the power to safeguard against another pandemic. But we do have the power to ensure it isn’t the most vulnerable that end up paying the heaviest price.