COVID-19 in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp


SEATTLE, Washington — As a result of years of suffering and discrimination, the Rohingya people, an Indo-Aryan ethnic group in Myanmar, Southeast Asia, were forced to flee their home country. The 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis worsened in August 2017 as the conflict in Rakhine State, Myanmar, escalated. Since then, more than 700,000 Rohingya people fled to the neighboring country Bangladesh. Today, about 860,000 Rohingya live in the world’s largest and most densely populated refugee camp called Kutupalong, located outside of Cox’s Bazar, a city in Bangladesh.

Kutupalong: World’s Largest Refugee Camp

About half of the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Kutupalong are children. With overcrowding, poor living conditions and great psychological stress, these children already face immense health challenges. Yet, now with the global COVID-19 pandemic, children living in Kutupalong face more significant challenges to their health and well-being.

Infectious diseases and malnutrition threaten the Rohingya refugee children’s health. About half of the children lack access to formal education. Moreover, with an unstable environment, other socio-economic dangers also jeopardize the children’s futures. These socio-economics challenges include abuse, neglect, sexual violence, trafficking and child labor, among others.

The Threat of COVID-19

As of June 16, 38 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed inside the refugee camp, and two people have died. However, because Kutupalong can only currently conduct limited testing, the number of COVID-19 cases in the refugee camp is expected to be much higher.

Like many refugee camps, Kutupalong’s overcrowded conditions make social distancing amid the pandemic extremely difficult. The center also lacks enough masks, soap and water to keep its residents protected from the virus. As a result, Rohingya children and their families are at a significant risk of infection.

However, there are efforts underway to prevent and maintain the spread of COVID in Kutupalong. In addition to Bangladesh’s nationwide lockdown, international humanitarian organizations like World Vision are helping protect refugees from the dangers of COVID-19. Workers from the community and humanitarian aid groups provide aid and accurate information on COVID-19 and public health throughout Kutupalong. Moreover, the refugee camp’s doctors are working to increase COVID-19 testing moving while new healthcare facilities are being set up with more beds to treat patients.

Yet, because there is no internet service inside the camp, it is challenging to raise awareness of COVID-19 protocols among the refugee population and set alternative aiding platforms for the center like online learning for children and telehealth programs.

Impact on Children’s Health

The pandemic has endangered the refugee children’s health in multiple ways, including:

  1. Malnutrition: Already, 30% of the Rohingya children live with chronic malnutrition, while 11% live with acute malnutrition. Many families struggle to find enough to eat, more so to eat a diverse array of foods to support their children’s mental and physical development. The COVID-19 pandemic increases children’s risk of malnutrition by worsening the already-present problem of food insecurity and hindering prevention tactics. The camp’s UNICEF nutrition facilities, for example, have had to limit the services they can offer to follow Bangladesh’s lockdown measures. Community nutrition volunteers would also typically screen many children for signs of malnutrition, but must now rely on Rohingya mothers to measure the severity of their children’s malnutrition.

  2. COVID-19: The overcrowded and unsanitary conditions inside Kutupalong will make it easy for COVID-19 to spread among residents, especially children. Unfortunately, the elevated problem of malnutrition will also make it easier for children to contract the virus. UNICEF nutrition manager Dr. Karanveer Singh has called this relationship is a “vicious cycle of malnutrition and infection.”

  3. Mental health: The Rohingya refugees have already experienced incredibly traumatic events of violence and persecution. The lockdown and threat of COVID-19 are currently putting the refugees at an even greater risk of psychological trauma.

Impact on Education

In addition to jeopardizing the refugee children’s physical and mental health, the COVID-19 pandemic is also impacting the Rohingya children’s education. As mentioned previously, approximately half of the children had access to formal education before the epidemic began. Due to the pandemic and its consequential lockdown, those learning centers have closed, and Bangladeshi teachers are unable to enter Kutupalong. Without internet access, families are struggling to find ways to continue learning at home.

Looking Ahead

The community is working to find solutions to this problem. Approximately 1,200 Rohingya teachers are volunteering their time to engage families in home-based learning. At the same time, UNICEF volunteers are providing books, workbooks and audio messages to keep children learning.

By disrupting the refugee children’s education, the COVID-19 pandemic is putting an already vulnerable population at an even more significant disadvantage. Still, as the situation in the world’s largest refugee camp is bringing awareness to the Rohingya refugees’ suffering and need of immediate support, humanitarian organizations and communities are coming together to make sure the Rohingya people thrive once the pandemic is over.

-Emily Dexter
Photo: Flickr


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