Keeping the refugees and IDPs confined in the camps uninformed may be detrimental to effective enforcement of the authorities’ efforts and measures to prevent and contain the spread of the pandemic.
As the world fights the novel coronavirus that has spread to several countries and regions, refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are among the most vulnerable to COVID19 pandemic. One such community is the Rohingyas — close to a million are in Bangladesh as refugees and several hundred thousand are internally displaced in Myanmar.
Over 855,000 Rohingya refugees, many of whom fled a military crackdown from neighbouring Myanmar in 2017, have been living in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, that house the world’s largest refugee camp. Another about 126,000 Rohingyas have been confined to open-air detention camps in Rakhine state of Myanmar since communal violence in 2012.
In the fight against the COVID19 pandemic, health experts recommend social/physical distancing as an effective measure to prevent the spread of the pandemic. For the Rohingyas, practicing social distancing in refugee and IDP camps, is impossible. Living in overcrowded camps with poor hygienic facilities and limited access to healthcare services increase the risk to the infectious coronavirus pandemic.
The Bangladesh government imposed a national lockdown on the day the first case of COVID19 was confirmed in Cox’s Bazar on 25 March. Earlier on 18 March, Bangladesh authorities discouraged public gatherings in Cox’s Bazar, a region that attracts a large number of domestic tourists. As the number of confirmed cases rose to 424 with 27 deaths as of 11 April, the Bangladesh government has extended the nationwide lockdown to 25 April and imposed further restrictions on movements in Rohingya refugees camps.
The United Nations human rights office in a statement on 19 March called for governments to “refrain from blocking internet access” during the COVID19 pandemic. The Rohingya refugees camps have been under internet blackout since September last year when the Bangladesh authorities banned internet access citing security concerns following violence in the area.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) on 26 March has urged Bangladesh authorities to “lift the internet ban immediately” so that Rohingya refugees could access information on the virus and its prevention as well as to help aid workers address the threat posed of COVID19. The internet blackout remains in the refugee camps in Bangladesh.
In Myanmar, the number of cases of COVID19 have been recently growing with 28 confirmed cases and three COVID19 deaths as of 10 April. Rohingyas in Myanmar’s IDP camps also face similar challenges. On 30 March, HRW has warned that “overcrowding, a mobile internet shutdown, blocks on humanitarian aid, and movement restrictions have left displaced communities <…> especially vulnerable to a virus outbreak” in Myanmar.
A factor that has further complicated the situation in Myanmar is the ongoing conflicts between ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar army. Myanmar authorities first imposed internet blackout in Rakhine and Chin states in June 2019 that later lifted in four townships in Rakhine state in September last year.
On 5 February this year, authorities again re-imposed internet blackout as a security measure in the four townships. Rakhine state houses IDP camps of not just the Rohingyas but also of other ethnic groups. Following this 29 rights groups have urged Myanmar government to lift internet restrictions in Rakhine and Chin states.
Rights groups have also raised concerns about another recent development involving Rohingyas. On 8 April, a Myanmar court dropped cases of 128 Rohingyas who were caught and detained in prisons after fleeing conflict-ridden Rakhine state. It is not clear why authorities decided to suddenly drop their cases now and there is no clarity as to whether they would be sent back to Rakhine state.
Reports suggest that the reason for the abrupt dropping of their cases could have been prompted by the fear of a potential COVID19 outbreak in the country’s overcrowded prisons. Improving the poor healthcare facilities and inadequate access to clean water and sanitation in refugee and IDP camps are already a daunting task for authorities and aid agencies in the fight against COVID19 pandemic.
With internet blackout, Rohingyas are left without access to information and communication useful to make themselves informed about how to protect themselves from the COVID19 pandemic. Mayyu Ali, a Rohingya refugee, has noted that internet blackout has “deprived
Keeping the refugees and IDPs confined in the camps uninformed may be detrimental to effective enforcement of the authorities’ efforts and measures to prevent and contain the spread of the pandemic. Rather than restricting internet services in refugees and IDPs, authorities in Bangladesh and Myanmar could use the tool to better communicate and monitor situations in the camps and help humanitarian workers to carry out their operations more effectively in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
Lifting internet restrictions in Rohingya refugees and IDPs camps may not be a panacea to all challenges in combating the pandemic, but it may help this vulnerable community access information that may help protect themselves from the COVID19 outbreak in the camps. There have been no confirmed COVID19 cases reported in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh as well as IDP camps in Myanmar as yet and the time to lift internet blackout is now.
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K. Yhome was Senior Fellow with ORFs Neighbourhood Regional Studies Initiative. His research interests include Indias regional diplomacy regional and sub-regionalism in South and Southeast ...Read More +