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OP-ED: Don’t forget the Rohingya

  • Published at 03:03 pm August 27th, 2020

It would be disastrous if coronavirus spread in the Rohingya refugee camps

The Rohingya community has suffered unimaginable violence in their own homeland. The fate of the Rohingya peoples is still undecided. On August 25, 2017, over 700,000 Rohingya fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh which now hosts over a million refugees who are now living in 34 packed camps in Cox’s Bazar. 

With no food, no shelter, they were assembling by the side of the road. Some of them were with their families, some of them were not. It was during monsoon and I remember the rain pouring down on their clothes, their bodies covered in mud, children crying in laps. 

Their voices were unheard. Their needs were unsaid. 

As I was collaborating to cover some stories about the Rohingya refugees inside the camps in August 2017, Hasina, a 35-year-old Rohingya woman, pulled me aside to share her part of the story. 

She was constantly crying, begging for help as she thought I was a doctor. Later on, I consoled her and calmed her down. What I heard next was heart-breaking, and not meant for sensitive souls. 

“10-15 people from the Myanmar military raped me, cut my sexual organs with a knife, and tortured my husband in front of my eyes,” she said. “My husband’s last sentence before they took him away from me was: ‘We’ll meet in heaven, Hasina,’” she added, bursting into tears. 

This is just one story. There are thousands of stories like hers in the camps, some even worse than this. 

Three years have passed since then. No one really knows when the Rohingya will be able to get back to their homeland of Rakhine. Despite having several discussions and bilateral agreements between Bangladesh and Myanmar over these three years, there has been no positive move from the Myanmar government as of yet about the safe repatriation of these Rohingya refugees. 

If they had any interest, the Rohingya repatriation would have happened by now. 

Despite having limited resources, the government of Bangladesh as well as UN agencies, and international and national aid organizations are working relentlessly to provide food, basic health care, and other services such as safe drinking water and communal toilets to the Rohingya. 

But now, with the pandemic, their lives have become even more miserable. 84 Covid-19 cases with six deaths have been confirmed inside the camps as of August 22. Researchers from Yale University reported that 25% of the Rohingyas who are living in the camps have at least one symptom of Covid-19 infection. 

And whenever they feel any possible symptoms of the virus, they are rushing to the pharmacies for whatever medicine they can get. Not many are getting the opportunity or have the will power to get tested and be shifted to the isolation centres. 

This is not the fault of the Rohingya people, where the majority of the community has no literacy and is unaware of the deadly impact of the virus. Adding to this, there are a plethora of rumours inside the camps about Covid-19. 

They are also deprived of internet facilities inside the camps since last September. But recently, the Bangladesh government has decided to restore 3G and 4G internet inside the camps so that is a good sign. 

But a lack of awareness has been a tremendous problem prevailing in the camps. Without having proper knowledge about the virus, these people can’t keep pace with the proper health guidelines. 

Considering the recent situation, sufficient masks for over a million refugees, PPEs/gloves for front line health workers in the camps, clean water and soaps to wash hands frequently, and enough manpower to raise awareness inside the camps are scarce. 

In the densely packed camps made of bamboo and tarpaulin sheets, it’s so hard to maintain social distancing. People are scared this will spread the virus even more. 

Widespread testing inside the camps, distribution of enough supplies, strong awareness raising by aggregating an adequate number of volunteers can be a key to the problems. As this is the monsoon season, outbreak of waterborne diseases can be extensive in the coming days. 

If Covid-19 and these outbreaks merge in the near future, then we can’t even imagine what will happen inside and outside the camps. We must act now to prevent a disaster.

The pandemic has also brought further uncertainty to any chance of safe repatriation. There is a high possibility that this issue will not get much attention from the international community because of the ongoing Covid-19 situation around the world. 

Bangladesh’s economy is currently not strong enough to provide them with all the necessary facilities. As there is no immediate hope of their safe repatriation, now, more than ever, it’s the duty of the international community to ensure that issue does not fall behind the curtain, and work towards a safe and dignified repatriation as soon as possible. 

The Rohingya are human beings. They don’t deserve the life in the camps nor do they deserve the atrocities which were carried out against them by the Myanmar army. 

They simply want a peaceful life with all their rights, security, and dignity. Most of them want to go back to their country safely. 

Let’s express our solidarity with the Rohingya and act as soon as possible to ensure their dignified repatriation to their homeland.

Saharin Priya Shaoun is working in the development sector, collaborating with international communities since 2017.

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