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Rohingya: Between generosity and uncertainty

Published : Monday, 27 April, 2020 at 12:00 AM  Count : 813
Ishrat Zakia Sultana

The spread of COVID-19 has unmasked a truth that humanitarian approaches are not universal, these are rather exclusionary. The situation of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh is an example of such exclusions.The scanty health services and the shutdown of internet in the camps amid the spread of the virus have put the Rohingya refugees into uncertainty.

While the generosity of Bangladesh in providing humanitarian support to 1.1 million Rohingya has earned much appreciation, the Rohingya community, who are reported to be still unaffected by the coronavirus,will be in a complete disaster, if the virus spreads among them, due to the lack of necessary health services in the camps. Clearly, they are outside the protection framework as Bangladesh prioritizes citizens over the non-citizens to be protected to combating the pandemic.Although they used to receive some forms of health services from a few national and international agencies until early 2020, almost all are gone now because of the pandemic.

For 33, 542 registered Rohingya refugees, there are 2 hospitals at Kutupalong and Nayapara but adequate facilities to diagnose, test and care along with referral system in these hospitals are big questions if patients come with the corona symptoms. The Forcefully Displaced Myanmar Nationals (FDMNs) who are unrecognized as "refugees", according to the Ministry of Disaster Management webpage, have 7 field hospitals and 162primary health care centers for 11,18, 576 Rohingya on the other hand, which also lack necessary equipment and trained service providers to deal with COVID patients. Different international NGOs claim that they have conducted awareness raising sessions for a small number of community leaders, but the Rohingyas largely are unaware of the precautions they need to take. As a result, although they have heard about physical distancing and are not allowed to go outside the camp, little implications of such rules are noticed. They are rarely found in gloves and masks when coming to the mobile stations for grocery and vegetables inside the camp.

The CIC (Camp in Charge) of Kutupalong registered Rohingya camp often takes a stroll through the camp to monitor the situation, tries to make them aware by talking to them but polices sometimes beat the violators of the physical distancing rule.While such beating cannot be justified, how to enforce such rules in an environment where houses of the Rohingya families are too overcrowded leaving no room to stay inside for longer hours except the time to sleep. Here isolation and quarantine are two absurd words only. The situation of  Nayapara registered camp is much more unprotected than Kutupalong. Here the number of doctors in the hospital has been reduced, the CIC rarely monitors the camp-situation in person, and polices visit seldom.

In addition to the lack of awareness of the community and the lack of adequate health services for them, the lack of internet has added a different dimension to their vulnerability. They are disconnected from the host community as their movement has been restricted. They are disconnected from their relatives abroad and media as their internet access has been restricted. Earlier, they were connected via social media with their relatives dispersed in different countries, and used to get updates of what happened around them. Receiving services from the NGOs also required internet communication within the camp. But the government shutdown internet in the camps since September 2019 as a security measure. Such banning, which has badly affected the entire communication system within the camp in this critical situation, again reflects the exclusionary humanitarian approach.

Ideally, a humanitarian approach to provide services includes both citizens and non-citizens living within the geographical boundary of a state. The reality, however, is always different than the ideal situation particularly when it comes to coronavirus outbreak in a country like Bangladesh, which has been generously hosting the highest number of Rohingya refugees in the world with extremely limited resources and supports. Ironically, such generosity, devoid of preparation and precaution in the emergency situation, leaves the Rohingya into uncertainty.

On the one hand, Bangladesh cannot be held solely responsible for not doing enough for the Rohingya to prepare them to fight with coronavirus. On the other,it is, surely, the responsibility of Bangladesh to keep them safe, for the sake of humanity, and for the safety of the host community. The host community and the Rohingya, both having high population density, live in such a close proximity to each other that the spread of the virus would befaster and easier among them if a positive case is found in either of the groups.

Unfortunately, Bangladesh has been paying the cost of being a generous host for quite a long time, albeit in a haphazard way. Therefore, realistic and proactive humanitarian plans and policies are seriously needed to save the Rohingya refugees and the FDMNsfor whom health services and internet should be made accessible during the coronavirus spread.While exposing our attitude toward the stateless vulnerable people in the crisis, coronavirus has also revealed the poor work strategies and the hindsight of most of the international agencies dealing with the Rohingya and emergency situations in Bangladesh. The agencies always had short-term and long-term plans on the table and worked in the camps, using big signboards, riding expensive cars, and holding meetings at luxury venues at Cox's Bazar years after years, to help (!) the Rohingya.

The unprotected situation of the Rohingya today, however, demonstrates that the agencies actually spent time and money without having any effective, sustainable, and humanitarian plans to face the real emergency situation like the ongoing one, which, sadly, went unnoticed!

The structure of  a hospital, having an ambulance, and 4-5 doctors under roster system to provide paracetamol only to cure any disease is all the Rohingya have now for health service. And the absence of internet connection is enough to jeopardize their substandard health services if a positive case of coronavirus is detected.Neither the international agencies nor Myanmar, from where the Rohingya came, would pay for the lack of preparation, it is only Bangladesh who will have to pay upon the spread of the virus in the camp.

Although "sea of worries, sea of fears", as sung by Sting in his Inshallah, are clearly visible within the Rohingya camps, let us not create a sea of tears. Despite being a non-signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, Bangladesh is a signatory to many international human rights agreements, and it thus cannot deny its responsibility toward the Rohingya. The time has come toplan for an emergency like the COVID-19 at the Rohingya camps and relieve the 1.1 million susceptible people from uncertainty.

Dr Ishrat Zakia Sultana is an

Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science and Sociology, and Researcher,
The Center for Peace Studies (CPS), North South University, Bangladesh

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