The Rohingya: The Most Vulnerable Refugees Amid COVID-19

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TACOMA, Washington — Cramped living quarters, unsanitary living conditions and hoards of strangers constantly huddled together at any given moment is a breeding ground for COVID-19. These conditions make the Rohingya some of the most vulnerable refugees during COVID-19.

The Rohingya Crisis

The Rohingya are an ethnic minority from Bengal who has lived in the Rakhine state of Myanmar for generations. However, they do not have any sort of recognition as citizens or permanent residents, and due to this perpetual alien status, they have no access to proper infrastructure for employment, education and healthcare services, among others. As a result, many of them live in communities or settlements entrenched in poverty.

Additionally, Myanmar is a majority Buddhist country, and the Rakhine Buddhist population condemns living within proximity of the Muslim Rohingyas. In fact, there have been outright attacks. The September 2017 massacre of 10 Muslim men set the precedence for heightened conflict between the two groups with vastly oppositional ideologies. Rohingya Muslim villages have been bulldozed, and government officials and administration deny there ever having been previous Muslim settlements. The Rohingya have been forcibly displaced for years on end, but 2017 was a turning point with around one million fleeing the country during a Myanmar military intervention.

Refugees in the Cox Bazar District

History repeats itself as the Rohingya are having to seek refuge as refugees. However, this time in the neighboring country of Bangladesh. The Cox’s Bazar district is home to around 900,000 refugees. Impromptu, makeshift settlements were created to accommodate the mass influx of refugees.

Unfortunately, these settlements do not provide much foundation or stability. Most of the living quarters are made from bamboo and plastic tarps, while being settled on uneven hills, providing little-to-no protection during the monsoon season. The rainy season brings floodings, landslides, leakages and wearing of the bamboo and plastic, leading to the overall demolition of some tents.

Many living in the Cox Bazar are illiterate and do not know what COVID-19 is—let alone strategies to combat infectious diseases. Organizations will come to the camps and yell over loudspeakers about the current situation, but this method is highly ineffective, creating more ruckus than actually being informative. Since the Rohingya belong to no country, they do not have access to higher education, hence why illiteracy is very high. Due to their inability to comprehend the severity of COVID-19, many do not take any precautionary measures, rather more are perturbed about their livelihood and identity as stateless citizens.

Humanitarian Organizations Aiding Refugees

There is a limited amount of resources humanitarian organizations are able to supply. With the global arms race for masks, hand sanitizers and gloves, among others, the Rohingya camps will be met with even greater limitations. The structure is inherently unsafe; the rooms are small and suffocating, with nine people to a room. Everything is communal: bathrooms, showers and water points to collect drinking water and wash laundry. Even stepping outside is already impeding on the six feet protocol.

The number of COVID-19 tests is also limited. A total of 981 tests have been conducted in the refugee settlements; 57 have tested positive and five have died. This is a significantly lower testing rate when compared to the 900,000 refugees living in Cox’s Bazar, furthering the Rohingya as one of the most vulnerable refugees during COVID-19.

The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society is a humanitarian organization that is working at the ground level to help the camps. Volunteers from the organization are going door to door to thoroughly explain COVID-19 and measures to protect oneself from the virus. This method has proven to be highly effective, with more people showing an understanding of the virus.

The Rohingya need help more than ever as one of the world’s most vulnerable refugees during COVID-19. There are around 100 different organizations working to help the Rohingya, both local and international actors. These organizations are implementing initiatives targeted at healthy and nutritional living, as well as developing protection programs against natural disasters so they are well-equipped and knowledgeable on ways to combat natural disasters and unprecedented crises.

Mina Kim
Photo: Flickr

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