24 June, 2022

The Humanitarian Collective

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Rohingya Refugees Scapegoated for the Spread of COVID-19 in Bangladesh

Social Media Director Lauren Ho investigates the blame placed on Rohingya refugees for the spread of COVID-19, and the impacts this notion is having on their already dire circumstances.

Already struggling with poverty and persecution, Rohingya refugees are now being scapegoated for the rise of COVID-19 in Bangladesh as cases continue to skyrocket.

The Rohingya refugees residing in Bangladesh are members of a Muslim minority who fled a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing in northwestern Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2017. Prior to the mass migration, Bangladesh already had 200,000 refugees from earlier Rohingya migrations prior to the ethnic cleansing. Over a million of the refugees live in crowded camps in a single coastal district in southeast Bangladesh, close to the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.

Bangladesh has long struggled with overpopulation and poverty, leading citizens to resent refugees, fearing that the country’s already scarce funds are being diverted to them. While humanitarian groups deliver aid to the refugees frequently, resentment among locals remains strong as the poor communities around the camps where the refugees live receive no help. 

COVID-19 has only exacerbated resentment to the refugees, who Bangladeshi citizens now blame for the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

Most of the refugees live in one of 34 refugee camps across southeastern Bangladesh. The biggest one, Kutupalong, is home to approximately 600,000 people. Not only is it the biggest refugee camp in the world, but it is also the most densely crowded at 70,000 people per square kilometer. The camp is a large settlement made out of bamboo and plastic sheets, making it virtually impossible to maintain social distancing, a similar story for the other 33 densely packed refugee camps in Bangladesh. 

During the seasonal monsoon season from April to November, the precarious shelters are at risk from floods and landslides, worsening already poor living conditions. Due to the hot, humid climate, frequent windblown dust storms, poor water quality, and lack of enough food, refugees frequently face respiratory ailments, gastrointestinal problems, and malnutrition.

In mid-March 2020, the World Health Organization warned of what could become a disastrous outbreak in the camp, because of the lack of social distancing, inadequate sanitation, and insufficient medical resources. Aid workers have said that if refugees become sick with COVID-19, it could become a “death sentence” for them and their families. 

“Inside the [Kutupalong] camp, there are few isolation centers, only 200 hospital beds and three ventilators,” Malaka Gharib of NPR reports. An outbreak would essentially means death for all refugees living at the camp.

“In the event of a major outbreak, patients may have to be treated in their homes or other places in the community rather than at medical facilities,” said Muriel Boursier, head of mission for the Doctors Without Borders aid agency in Bangladesh.

Yet as of July 4th, only 5 Rohingya refugees in the Kutupalong camps have died of COVID-19, far less than in the surrounding communities. “The number of confirmed cases outside [the camp] exceeded 2,700 compared to just 52 in the [Kutupalong] camp.” 

However, low testing rates in the camps are likely the reason for the low number of cases. By early June, less than 350 tests had been administered to the hundreds of thousands of refugees. Manish Kumar Agrawal, the Bangladesh Director for the International Rescue Committee, said that there are fewer than 10 tests a day, masking the actual situation in the camps.

Additionally, refugees fear being separated from their families and held in isolation, and thus refuse testing even when offered. “Some people even believed rumors that coronavirus patients were being killed to stop the epidemic.”

An internet blackout that has been in effect since last September, intended as a crackdown on illegal activity, is likely contributing to the misinformation and rumors regarding the virus. 

Researchers from Yale University have reported that 25% of camp residents have reported at least one symptom of COVID-19 infection, while symptoms were twice as common in the camps compared with the surrounding Bangladeshi community, leading many to believe that the virus is spreading rapidly through the camps unreported. However, due to the numerous health issues the refugees face by living in the camps, the extent of the COVID-19 outbreak in the camps is truly unknown.

Bangladeshis who live near the camps are afraid that the Rohingyas, who leave their camps and enter local communities to work and shop, will spread the virus to them. Some villages have even formed committees to identify the Rohingyas and send them back to the camps.

“The Rohingya are being unjustifiably labeled as virus spreaders,” Chowdhury Rafiqul Abrar, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University, said.

“While we understand fears associated with the spreading of the disease, discrimination cannot be the answer,” said Nicole Epting, senior coordinator with the Inter Sector Coordination Group, a UN-led coalition of humanitarian groups.

Rohingya refugees should not be discriminated against because of fears of COVID-19. It is appalling that refugees who are running away from a government who doesn’t recognize them as citizens are now being scapegoated for spreading disease. 

Instead of exacerbating the already poor life of the Rohingyas, the government of Bangladesh should be proactively working to resolve the situation by removing the inappropriate internet blackout, spreading crucial information about prevention of the coronavirus, increasing testing, and ultimately lessening the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic will have.


What can we do to help this horrifying situation? First, I encourage everyone to sign this petition urging the government of Bangladesh to lift the internet blackout that is preventing the flow of information from entering the refugee camps, leading to rumors and misinformation regarding COVID-19. Secondly, I would suggest that readers donate to the UN Refugee Agency, which is building labs, building treatment centers, and bringing much needed food and medicine. With these two critical steps we can begin to move towards improvement.

Sources: Links embedded

Lauren Ho is a Junior at the Horace Mann School in New York. She is passionate about debate, crew, and teaching. She also loves to travel, explore new cultures, and try new foods.