In crowded Rohingya refugee camps, social distancing presents challenges

Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. Credit: DFID_CC 2.0.

While hand washing and social distancing have been implemented around the globe as tools to fight the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, refugees face challenges in putting these recommendations into practice, said one relief agency worker.

Inmanuel Chayan, a communications officer for Caritas Bangladesh, warned that many Rohingya refugees living in camps in Bangladesh lack the luxury of being able to follow public health guidelines to combat the virus.

“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,” Chayan wrote on the Caritas website June 26. “They cannot maintain the proper distancing or hygiene measures to provide effective prevention against the spread of the coronavirus.”

In addition, misinformation within the refugee camps has hampered efforts to implement preventative measures, he noted.

The Rohingya are a largely Muslim ethnic group who reside in Burma’s Rakhine State. In August 2017, the Rohingya faced a sharp increase in state-sponsored violence in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

The Burmese government refused to use the term Rohingya, and considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They have been denied citizenship and numerous other rights since a controversial law was enacted in 1982.

The violence reached levels that led the United Nations to declare the crisis “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

More than 1 million Rohingya fled across the border to Bangladesh. Most are living in refugee camps, many of which are located in a swampy sort of “buffer zone” along the border between the two countries.

Chayan lamented that the Rohingya “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.”

Now, they face a pandemic which they are not equipped to deal with, he said. The population density in the refugee camps makes it nearly impossible to maintain proper social distancing, and with local hospitals filling up, they are unlikely to receive critical care.

Only a few dozen cases of COVID-19 have been identified in the Rohingya camps over the last month. However, real numbers could be far higher, due to a lack of adequate testing.

Additionally, heavy rainfall during the monsoon season has prompted fears of floods and landslides, adding to the challenges facing the refugees.

Caritas Bangladesh is working in the Rohingya refugee camps to try to alleviate the suffering there. The agency is offering soap and hygiene kits to families, installing handwashing stations, and offering coronavirus information to the community.

“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,” Chayan said.

Still, he continued, these challenges will not be solved until the underlying problems facing the Rohingya community are addressed.

“The international community must recognize the rights of the Rohingya community for justice to be done and for anything to change in their lives,” he said. “The Rohingya must have their rights to live in their own land freely and with dignity recognized and be safely and peacefully repatriated to Myanmar.” - Catholic News Agency