It has been over two and a half years since more than 700,000 Rohingya fled violence and suffering in Myanmar, finding sanctuary in camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. The humanitarian community and Bangladesh authorities have maintained a huge response to the crisis, providing not only vital, basic services, but also other aspects including psychological support and infrastructure to prevent flooding. However, long-term problems persist. Children lack access to formal education, adults are not permitted to work and gender-based violence is widespread. The lack of any recognisable legal status for the Rohingya remains a fundamental weakness in arrangements. Most recently, the building of imposing fencing around, and potentially between, the camps will inevitably limit freedom of movement and cut off the Rohingya communities from some essential facilities and each other.
All these long-term problems are exacerbated by the threat of Covid-19; the first cases have been confirmed among the Rohingya, and the outbreak in such crowded camps is assessed as likely to quickly spread. The high density of people at service distribution points makes social distancing unfeasible and the lack of sanitation facilities renders advice to keep washing hands, impossible to comply with. There is a severe shortage of personal protective equipment, and of isolation beds in the region—there are zero ventilators. The minimal healthcare provision could not cope with a widespread outbreak.
The lockdown announced on April 8 2020 aimed at containing the pandemic, has restricted humanitarian activity to those deemed critical to the Covid-19 response and leaves the Rohingya without access to many essential services. Furthermore, a mobile phone and internet blackout, covering the whole area, along with a ban on Rohingya possessing SIM cards in Bangladesh, prevents the dissemination of essential information about the pandemic and how to stay safe. Recent reports of hundreds of Rohingya risking their lives in attempts to sail unsuitable vessels to other countries around the Bay of Bengal is an indication of the desperate situation in the camps.
The root of the crisis lies in Rakhine State in Myanmar, where the Rohingya have suffered a long history of persecution and violence. Recent investigations have not been optimistic that the local or national government in Myanmar are working towards providing conditions conducive to the safe and dignified repatriation of the Rohingya. In October 2019, The UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission concluded starkly that Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State face “systematic persecution and live under the threat of genocide”. In December 2019, the de facto leader of the Government of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, appeared before the International Court of Justice to defend the country’s military against accusations of violating the Genocide Convention. The Court required Myanmar to take all measures within its power to prevent acts against the Rohingya, as set out under Article II of the Genocide Convention, and to preserve evidence related to acts of genocide. The Court also demanded regular reports on the steps taken by Myanmar in this regard.
The Myanmar Government has announced plans to close its widely criticised internally displaced persons camps, including those housing remaining Rohingya in Rakhine State. However, it is unclear what improved conditions, quality of life or freedoms the new accommodation described could possibly offer. Now Covid-19 is threatening to overrun Myanmar’s weak health systems and inevitably, would spread rapidly in Myanmar’s IDP camps, long described by independent observers as some of the most unsanitary and appalling temporary accommodation anywhere. Furthermore, concerns have been raised that the amendment to the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law which requires individuals to apply for a permit to continue using their lands, could lead to seizures of land from the country’s ethnic minorities.
The UK Government has made a significant financial contribution to the humanitarian response in Cox’s Bazar and it is vital this support continues. The UK has also made representations to the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar on many of the issues set out in this Report and, in particular, should continue to use its influence to press both countries to lift their communications blackouts as a matter of urgency. Finally, the UK must keep the pressure on Myanmar to comply with its obligations to protect the Rohingya and establish the conditions to enable them to be repatriated in safety and with dignity.
Published: 22 May 2020