Humanitarian crises monitoring: the Rohingya Contents


Covid-19 in Cox’s Bazar

17.On 8 April 2020, a lockdown of Cox’s Bazar District was announced in response to the global Covid-19 pandemic.12 Since then, humanitarian activity in the area has been limited to activities critical to the Covid-19 response, such as nutrition services, provision of water, sanitation and hygiene facilities (WASH) and medical care. Other services such as education, safeguarding and protection and psychological support, have been suspended. Efficient coordination between the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which is leading the response, and other UN agencies, NGOs and the Bangladesh authorities, is crucial to keep both the host community in Cox’s Bazar, and the Rohingya, safe.

18.As of 18 May 2020, The World Health Organization reported 22,268 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Bangladesh, including 328 related deaths,13 and on 14 May, the first cases were confirmed among the Rohingya community in camps in Cox’s Bazar.14 The written responses we received expressed concern about the shortage of testing capacity in the camps, which means that a wider Covid-19 outbreak could be circulating undetected. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) described further risks:

The camp is particularly vulnerable to virus transmission due to its exceptionally high density (40,000 people per km2), poor sanitation, limited access to healthcare services, and high levels of malnutrition and other comorbidities amongst camp residents.15

19.The density of people makes social distancing unfeasible and there are particular fears of overcrowding at service pinchpoints such as food distribution points and WASH facilities, making it completely impossible to prevent the spread of infection by distance, separation or isolation.

20.Healthcare provision in the local area is minimal and will not cope with a widespread outbreak of Covid-19. We heard there is no capacity for intensive medical care in the camps and zero ventilators for 6.5 million people across the area covering Cox’s Bazar and Rakhine State.16 Most of Bangladesh’s intensive care facilities and ventilators are situated in the capital, Dhaka, out of reach for the Rohingya who are banned from travelling outside of the Cox’s Bazar District.17

21.Save the Children told us there are only 64 isolation beds across all 34 camps, with an additional 47 beds identified close to the camps in Teknaf and Ukiya. Work is underway to increase capacity across the District by approximately 1,500 beds. However, Save the Children said it is unclear how this can be implemented quickly and warned that even with those additional beds, it is unlikely provision will be adequate if there were a widespread outbreak of Covid-19.18

22.There is also a lack of medical personnel and equipment in the area, including personal, protective equipment (PPE). Human Rights Watch said that Rohingya community volunteers would be the first responders in this context and should be equipped with PPE and trained on health and hygiene promotion.19

23.The Department for International Development told us it has committed £10 million to the Covid-19 response in Cox’s Bazar District. According to the UK High Commissioner in Bangladesh, this funding will be put towards measures including establishing treatment centres, distributing soap, building more hand-washing facilities and raising awareness about personal hygiene.20

24.The Department for International Development (DFID) also supports the Early Warning, Alert and Response System (EWARS) for the early detection of disease outbreaks in Cox’s Bazar. Last year the system noted a spike in measles and rubella cases which led to a camp-wide vaccination campaign. The Department told us that EWARS is proving a critical resource in the current Covid-19 crisis.21

Mobile data ban and lack of access to SIM cards

25.In September 2019, the Bangladesh authorities imposed a mobile data ban covering Cox’s Bazar District, citing security reasons for its actions.22 The restrictions on 3G and 4G networks prevents the Rohingya—and the host population—in Cox’s Bazar from accessing the internet through mobile devices. It obviously also affects NGO staff working in the area, making everyone less effective and feeling less safe. The ban is now preventing the Rohingya from accessing information about Covid-19 and how to stay safe during the pandemic. It also hinders humanitarians from recording up to date information and reporting on the situation.

26.The lack of internet is compounded by the fact that Rohingya in Bangladesh are not legally allowed to have SIM cards. Human Rights Watch said that, since September 2019, the Bangladesh authorities have confiscated over 12,000 SIM cards from the Rohingya.23 This further limits their ability to communicate and exacerbates current challenges such as raising awareness and any solutions that rely on real-time data. These measures mean that information about the virus has to be disseminated face to face, which comes with added risks. It also hinders the Rohingya from reporting any potential Covid-19 symptoms to the relevant authorities. Contact tracing to find out where the virus had spread within the camps will be severely limited unless these communication facilities are restored.24

27.Furthermore, these communications blackouts are preventing services which have been disrupted by the lockdown, from being provided remotely. Services such as mental health support might have been able to continue in some form, through phone calls and digital resources but under the current conditions they have ceased altogether.

28.Our evidence was clear that the Bangladesh authorities must lift these bans as a matter of urgency, to ensure that the Rohingya and the host population have access to potentially life-saving information about Covid-19. The Department for International Development (DFID) told us that Minister of State for South Asia and the Commonwealth, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, has been raising the issue of internet access in the Rohingya refugee camps with the Government of Bangladesh, including with the Bangladesh High Commissioner in London.25 We welcome this action from the UK Government and recommend that further representations be made to the Government of Bangladesh until this problem is resolved.

Security in camps and the erection of fencing

29.Security, law and order are widespread problems in the camps in Cox’s Bazar. Most shelters do not have locks which makes them vulnerable to theft and offers little protection from intruders. Criminal gangs and drug trafficking is reported in the camps and the Rohingya are targeted by human traffickers also.

30.We heard the Rohingya face a dilemma with regards to combating these security threats: wanting a higher law & order presence, but fearing the Bangladesh security forces that would probably be providing it.26 The UNHCR suggested the international community could support civilian police in camps to increase their presence and consultations with refugees.27

31.In September 2019, Bangladesh Home Minister, Asaduzzaman Khan announced plans to build a barbed wire fence with watchtowers around the camps in Cox’s Bazar, to improve security inside the camps and prevent outsiders from entering.28 It was reported to us that plans had been confirmed for the incorporation of CCTV. Evidence received expressed serious concerns about the fencing which could severely impede the freedom of movement of Rohingya living inside the camps. The army began the first stage of building the fence in December 2019. By March 2020, over 50km of 15ft tall pillars had been erected around camps in Ukhia.29

32.An anonymous submission raised concerns that some facilities for the Rohingya are situated outside the boundaries set by the new fencing. It is unclear how the Rohingya living inside the fenced areas will be able to access these facilities. Furthermore, the army had estimated that as of March 2020, between 4000–5000 Rohingya would need to be relocated to within the fence boundary while some host community members would need to be relocated to outside the boundary.30 Fears were also raised that the proposed length of the fence: 147km, suggests it will encircle both the perimeter and within the perimeter, thus restricting movement between camps.31

33.Construction of these fences has been halted due to the lockdown. This pause provides the opportunity for the Bangladesh authorities to be encouraged to review the security strategy for the camps and consider whether plans made in the name of security should prevent the Rohingya from exercising their already limited freedom of movement, or accessing services, which are located within a reasonably circumscribed local area. DFID told us:

Any restrictions on refugee rights, movement and access to basic services should be related to genuine security risks, be proportionate, and be in line with relevant human rights law. Our approach is to promote stability and improve safety and security by strengthening social cohesion between refugees and host communities, enhancing rule of law and access to justice […]32

Attempts to reach Malaysia

34.On 15 April, the Bangladesh authorities intercepted a boat that had been adrift for more than two months, with nearly 400 Rohingya on board. Thirty other people are thought to have died and the fate of many others who have attempted this voyage, is uncertain. The Rohingya on board had left the camps in Cox’s Bazar in search of a better life in Malaysia but the authorities there had denied them entry on grounds of protection from Covid-19.33 Further reports of similar attempts by the Rohingya to reach Malaysia have been reported in recent weeks, demonstrating that hundreds of refugees are desperate to leave the Cox’s Bazar camps. As we approach the monsoon season, cyclones in the Bay of Bengal become more likely and could prove deadly to any traveller in an insecure vessel. This is another reminder that a long-term solution that allows the Rohingya to live with dignity in safety, is badly needed.

Relocation to Bhasan Char Island

35.When our predecessor Committee visited Bangladesh in March 2018, it heard that the Bangladesh authorities were preparing an island in the Bay of Bengal, to which they could relocate some of the Rohingya. Concerns were raised by NGOs that the island was little more than a sand bank with no infrastructure or services and frequently flooded during the monsoon season.34

36.Since then, infrastructure, services, accommodation and religious buildings have all been built on one such island. The written evidence we received reiterates the original concerns about the plan to relocate Rohingya to an island, now identified as ‘Bhasan Char’, that our predecessor Committee heard. DFID wrote that, before anyone could be moved to the island, detailed technical and protection assessments should be carried out by the UN, to ensure the rights of the Rohingya can be guaranteed.35 Relocation should be voluntary and only undertaken with the full cooperation of the Rohingya, who should be provided with detailed information about the location where they are going.

37.Evidence from the UNHCR said that senior Bangladesh government officials have made recent public statements saying they no longer plan to move Rohingya to the island and low-income Bangladeshis will be allowed to move there instead.36 However, recent news reports indicate that some of the Rohingya who have been picked up at sea by the Bangladesh authorities—more than 300—have been taken to the island. The authorities say this is a precaution to ensure they do not bring Covid-19 to the mainland and that millions of dollars have been spent on building flood barriers, homes, hospitals and mosques to make it habitable.37

38.It is believed that hundreds more, mainly Rohingya refugees, could be stranded at sea in unsuitable vessels. On 7 May, 18 aid agencies called on governments in the region to allow refugees stranded in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea to disembark.38 Our evidence was clear that the international community should act to reassure itself that the island of Bhasan Char was only used after safeguards were in place to ensure the Rohingya could access and enjoy their due rights. We believe it is important that this island site is not considered a long-term solution to this situation.39

Gender-based violence and trafficking

39.Gender-based violence (GBV) is a widespread problem in the camps in Cox’s Bazar. Traditional gender roles contribute to the risks women and girls are exposed to, including child marriage and domestic abuse.40 The International Rescue Committee (IRC) told us it has collected data from its protection programming that shows that at least one in four women and girls in Cox’s Bazar are subjected to gender-based violence every month.41 The lack of locks, segregated facilities and adequate lighting, puts women at increased risk. Many women and girls have reported experiencing violence at water points, bathing facilities and toilets.42

40.Many women had also experienced sexual violence during years of conflict and persecution in Rakhine State, and already require specialist support. A number of organisations are providing support services to women and other individuals who have experienced gender-based violence in the camps. The UNHCR told us about some of the facilities in camps:

In 2019, UNICEF recorded that 490 girls and 12,386 adult Rohingya refugees (75% of them female) were recorded as having received support on issues related to gender-based violence. UNICEF has set up a 13 Safe Spaces for Women and Girls programs across Cox’s Bazaar, which provide counselling support, vocational training and learning opportunities. Other organisations, such as Action Aid, also provide similar programs.43

41.The UNHCR told us they are focused on strengthening protection for the Rohingya using community-based measures, including a network of over 400 Community Outreach Members (COMs), 40 per cent of which are women. These COMs identify persons with specific needs and refer them to the relevant services.44

42.DFID said it had helped to support least 55,000 vulnerable women, men and children to access to GBV services such as mental health and psychosocial support, life skills, dignity kits (containing hygiene supplies such as sanitary pads, underclothes and soap), and case management services.45

43.The lockdown presents a worrying environment for women in the camps. 81 per cent of women who reported gender-based violence, reported intimate partner violence.46 There are concerns for their safety in the face of additional restrictions on movement, and increased responsibilities and stress in the home. Furthermore, women’s support networks are being disrupted due to social distancing measures that prevent them from visiting family and friends in other shelters, and support facilities have closed, denying them access to gender-based services. The UNHCR told us that referrals relating to sexual or gender-based cases has already risen in some camps.47

44.Human Rights Watch told us the internet restrictions are also hindering the coordination of protection response for victims of gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, and trafficking. They describe an incident where a protection officer in the camps learned of a trafficking case too late:

Our volunteer from that place was unable to inform me just because there was no internet and they were unable able to reach out over the phone, so I could not inform the law enforcers to urgently rescue them. This is hampering our work inside the camp.48

45.There are reports of Rohingya men, women and children being trafficked to countries across the region, but many are taken to the nearby city of Chittagong or Cox’s Bazar town. The men are often put to work in factories, construction sites or as fishermen, and women are forced into domestic servitude.49 A news report by Thompson Reuters Foundation found that many are abused physically and psychologically and are paid little or no money. 50 The Rohingya are particularly vulnerable because they are not formally allowed to leave the camps in the first place, so if they attempt to return, their employers can threaten to call the police.

46.The Bangladesh authorities and NGOs are trying to educate the Rohingya about the risks of trafficking, using resources such as comic books and street plays to convey their message. It is thought these activities has helped individuals to come forward and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) identified 420 cases between December 2018 and June 2019, which was a fourfold increase on the previous 14 months.51

47.The Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK said the monitoring of trafficking in the camps needs to be increased, especially in the evenings and weekends when there are fewer humanitarian workers present.52 Now that lockdown measures are in place, protection issues could increase, as humanitarian organisations reduce their footfall in the camps for an extended period of time.

Sexual exploitation and abuse

48.Our predecessor Committee undertook a wide-ranging inquiry into sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector in 2018. That Committee was plainly horrified to discover how sexual predators appear to target the aid sector and prey on vulnerable populations, particularly during humanitarian crises. As before, a high profile scandal raised the profile of these issues and prompted donors, including the DFID, to mobilise charities and NGOs to look for ways to prevent perpetrators from moving around the sector. However, significant progress has been slow to materialise and concerns for aid beneficiaries persist. Information relating to specific contexts rarely makes its way into the public domain but all humanitarian actors and security personnel working in Cox’s Bazar should be aware of the risks and take the necessary measures to ensure the Rohingya are protected.

49.Information provided by the IOM set out that, as co-chair of the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) Network in Cox’s Bazar, it has rolled out training tools and materials to support other international and local organizations to fulfil their PSEA commitments. The IOM, alongside DFID, support the staffing, functioning and continuation of the PSEA Network and the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG). The organisation told us it is ensuring the integration of SEA awareness raising material within the Covid-19 response.53

50.The IOM has also launched a PSEA Champion Initiative in Cox’s Bazar. PSEA champions are nominated from field staff and are trained to identify SEA risks in IOM projects to ensure they are safe, as well as providing training for other humanitarian workers. They are responsible for raising awareness within the community and helping survivors to report to PSEA focal points.54

Protracted crisis planning

51.More than 850,000 Rohingya have escaped violence and persecution in Myanmar by fleeing to Cox’s Bazar District in Bangladesh. More than 700,000 Rohingya have arrived since the increased violence following the events of August 2017. The Government of Bangladesh must be commended, and supported, for allowing the Rohingya to enter the country and for the immediate welcome in Cox’s Bazar. However, Bangladesh has consistently resisted implementing measures, however positive, that could be interpreted as conferring legal status to, or recognising the likely permanence of, the Rohingya. The Government of Bangladesh continues to insist that the Rohingya’s presence is a temporary solution until they can safely return to Myanmar. Nobody thinks this is feasible under the conditions prevailing in that country.

52.The IRC told us that only 4 per cent of Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar have been granted refugee status.55 This prevents the vast majority, who are not legally recognised as refugees, from accessing services and protections, denies them the right to work and makes them vulnerable to exploitation.

53.A small proportion of Rohingya were volunteering for NGOs in the camps for a small renumeration, and DFID had been supporting skills training before the lockdown halted such activities. The IRC said the large-scale skills programmes in the area are targeted at the host community and the programmes for the Rohingya are focused on vocational training and vegetable gardening.56 DFID said it has been pressing the Government of Bangladesh to allow improved access to more sustainable skills development programmes.57 However, traditional gender norms within the Rohingya community means that women face further barriers from accessing economic opportunities. The majority of women surveyed for an report by the International Rescue Committee and Overseas Development Institute said they would not want to work outside the house and most men agreed with that approach. Some home-based activities, such as sewing, appear to be more widely acceptable.58

54.These restrictions mean that almost all refugees are reliant on aid to survive. This can lead to the use of negative coping strategies. The IRC found that of the Rohingya they surveyed, 43 per cent sold aid items to meet cash needs and 75 per cent live below the minimum expenditure basket. This has increased by ten per cent since 2017.59

55.Our predecessor Committee took evidence on the coordination challenges facing the UN agencies, international and local NGOs, and Bangladesh authorities operating in Cox’s Bazar. In the face of a global pandemic, it is more important than ever that all actors working on the humanitarian response coordinate closely to ensure the safety of the Rohingya. However, this process must incorporate the Rohingya themselves. Some submissions we received raised concerns about the lack of Rohingya involvement in long-term decision-making about their lives. The Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK said: “They talk about us, without us.”60 It is essential that the Rohingya are fully consulted and listened to when making decisions about camp life and their future. This was an important element of the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit Communique which committed to: empowering affected people to drive their own response to crises.61

Host community

56.We received evidence about the negative impact the Rohingya migration has had on the host community in Cox’s Bazar, which has led to some resentment and instances of violence. Many people in the host community are without formal education and make a living from agriculture and fishing. Some land previously cultivated by the community is now being used by the camps and wages in the area have reportedly decreased, as Rohingya are willing to work for less money. Few members of the local community have been able to access jobs with the humanitarian agencies operating in the area because they lack the necessary skills.62

57.The host community is included in the UN 2020 Joint Response Plan for the area and should be consulted during any long-term planning. The IRC also recommend that a forum should be established to hear inter-community legal disputes between Rohingya and host communities.63

Access to education

58.The lack of formal education has been an ongoing problem for the 400,000+ children living in the camps. The Bangladesh authorities had been unwilling to allow formal education to be provided to Rohingya children who arrived since August 2017, to prevent the perception amongst the host community that the Rohingya were going to stay long-term. Rohingya children are also prevented from enrolling in schools for Bangladeshi children in the local area, meaning many have missed out on vital years of education.

59.The humanitarian community has set up temporary learning centres for Rohingya children to provide access to some primary-level tuition, but it is informal, the accommodation is cramped, and the teaching is often not age appropriate. There is currently no secondary-level provision and according to the 2020 Joint Response Plan, 30 per cent of children and young people have no access to education at all.64

60.There had been some cautious optimism about the provision of education in camps, when in January 2020, the Bangladesh authorities said they would allow the Myanmar curriculum to be taught at primary level. A pilot had been arranged to teach 10,000 children initially, which represents around 2 per cent of the children and young people in the camps.65 The evidence we received expressed concern about the small scale of the pilot and the lack of accreditation which means that educational attainment will not be recognised outside of the camps and might make it difficult for children to continue education elsewhere. The IRC told us there also needs to be a formal process for assessment and certification agreed with the Government of Myanmar.66

61.Due to the lockdown measures implemented to prevent the spread of Covid-19, children are currently unable to assemble to receive any form of education provision and the pilot scheme to teach the Myanmar curriculum at primary level, has been halted.67 This will once again set-back the opportunity for children in the camps to receive the education they need.

62.Save the Children warn that many children in the camps have either experienced themselves, or witnessed horrific acts of violence in Myanmar, separation from family and sexual exploitation and abuse. Struggles with mental health and wellbeing are compounded by precarious and high-risk conditions in the camps, so children need access to mental health and psychosocial support. Save the Children set out the challenges children face:

Many of the children attending Save the Children’s learning centres were also accessing support with their nutrition and emotional wellbeing, as well as accessing protection services through learning activities. With the prospect of an extended lockdown and restrictions on camp access and programming, the national, regional and local authorities must allow organisations to develop interim measures to continue providing these essential services.68

63.It is important the international community finds ways to provide these vital services during the extended lockdown with the cooperation of the Bangladesh authorities.

13 World Health Organization, Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Situation Report – 11, 18 May 2020

20 British High Commissions Dhaka, The UK Supports Bangladesh to fight Covid-19, Twitter, 6 April 2020

23 Ibid

28 Human Rights Watch, Bangladesh: Halt Plans to Fence-In Rohingya Refugees, 30 September 2019

30 Ibid

31 Ibid

34 International Development Committee, Bangladesh and Burma: the Rohingya crisis, HC504, Second Report of Session 2017–19, p.47–48. The island was originally identified as “Thengar Char”.

39 International Development Committee, Bangladesh and Burma: the Rohingya crisis, HC504, Second Report of Session 2017–19, p.47

42 Ibid

44 Ibid

50 Ibid

51 Ibid

53 Unpublished note provided to the Committee by the International Organisation for Migration, dated May 2020

54 Ibid

59 Ibid

61 International Development Committee, Bangladesh and Burma: the Rohingya crisis, HC504, Second Report of Session 2017–19, p12–13

63 Ibid

67 Ibid

Published: 22 May 2020