COVID-19 and State of Preparedness for the Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

By: Dr Mohammad Tarikul Islam

Since the 1970s large numbers of the Rohingya, an ethnic minority group from Myanmar has crossed into neighboring Bangladesh fleeing persecution. Bangladesh now hosts around one million Rohingya refugees, many living in makeshift camps in the area of Cox’s Bazar. These refugees reside in 34 camps where conditions are crowded and four to five people may stay in a single makeshift room made of tarpaulin sheets and bamboo sticks. The Rohingya refugees are highly vulnerable to Covid-19 in part because of the health risks associated with displacement, overcrowding, increased climatic exposure due to substandard shelter, and the poor nutritional and health status among affected populations. There is also a severe lack of water in the region.

This brief note will look at the level of preparation that has been taken so far to combat Covid-19 in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.  

To address the risks of a potential outbreak of coronavirus in the camps, the Government of Bangladesh, together with UNHCR and partners, has ensured the inclusion of Rohingya refugees in its national response. UNHCR and partners have launched construction of isolation and treatment facilities, with the goal of ensuring the availability of 1,900 hospital beds to serve both refugees and host communities. Information-sharing has been expanded through a network of more than 2,000 community volunteers, religious leaders and humanitarian workers. To understand the need of the Rohingya as well as to prepare preventative measures with the onset of COVID-19, UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP and IOM Representatives conducted a joint mission to Cox’s Bazar on 4-7 April 2020. Meetings were held with RRRC, Army, as well as the UN and NGO partners in Cox’s Bazar.  The 2020 Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis sought some US$877 million to meet the Rohingyas’ most critical needs before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Recognizing the risks that the COVID-19 outbreak could pose to the Rohingya refugee camps, IOM continues to coordinate with the Directorate General of Health Services, Civil Surgeon Office and the World Bank to support government isolation centres at Chakaria and Ramu upazilas in Cox’s Bazar. At the request of the local authorities, two ambulances have been assigned to support the referral of COVID-19 cases. To mitigate impact on the camps, the construction of two isolation and treatment centres with 100-bed capacity each at Leda (Camp 24) and the greater Kutupalong Balukhali Extension (KBE) camps are ongoing. Four primary healthcare centres have been readied to offer temporary isolation support for potential COVID-19 cases within the camps. Necessary renovations and procurement processes are underway to scale-up the isolation bed capacity within each centre. IOM is working with community leaders in the camps and the host community areas to encourage behavioural changes in line with the guidance provided by DGHS. In addition, IOM teams in Protection, Site Management and WASH, have also conducted awareness-raising measures that have reached more than 300,000 beneficiaries.

As in the past, the Bangladesh government continues to encourage other governments to stay engaged and address the pressing needs of these refugees – these needs will only grow as long as this situation remains unresolved. As part of an effort to prevent the coronavirus outbreak, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ordered the authorities concerned in late March to restrict entry of outsiders in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. Currently only government officials and authorized people now have entry there.  Also,  in consultation with the UN and other humanitarian partners, the authorities have also introduced restrictions on services provided in the camps. On 8 April, the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) gave an order further confining activities to just basic administration and help. These include programs for the provision of health care, sustenance, nourishment, fuel dispersion, washing stations, water and sanitation exercises, development of healthcare offices, among others.

On May 2, 2020, Bangladesh government quarantined 29 Rohingya refugees on Bhasan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal to prevent a Covid-19 outbreak in the camps. According to a media report, new arrivals were ethnic Rohingya who had fled Myanmar. Several trawlers, each packed with several hundred Rohingya, set out for Malaysia in March, but at least two were intercepted and turned away with a fresh supply of food and water. At least 50 Rohingya from one of the trawlers were transferred to smaller boats by smugglers and landed on the Bangladesh coast. Many of these Rohingya were able to disappear into the camps, but the authorities captured and quarantined 29 of them

While COVID-19 avoidance and readiness work continues, it is worrisome to consider the forthcoming twister and rainstorm seasons. We should bend over backward to ensure that the coming storm season does not compound the precarious circumstances of the Rohingya exiles in Bangladesh and exacerbate the spread of the infection. While it is imperative to organize general well being related arrangements in the camps right now, tornado and rainstorm readiness exercises should likewise proceed.

In spite of preparations there have been 29 confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection to date among the Rohingya refugee population (as of 26/05/2020).  After confirmation of COVID patients, the local administration has taken stricter action putting some 5,000 Rohingyas at the camp under complete lockdown as they work to trace the source of the outbreak. As long as social distancing and hand-washing are difficult to maintain in the Rohingya camps, the danger that the virus will spread further within the camps and to the local people persists. While this is the case, it will be critical to continue to invest in strategic preparedness and a response plan that outlines public health measures to prevent further transmission of Covid-19 among the Rohingya refugees and to mitigate the impact of the outbreak.


Dr. Mohammad Tarikul Islam is an Associate Professor of Government and Politics at Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh. He was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Oxford Department of International Development, Oxford in 2018. Prior to joining University, Dr Islam worked in the United Nations for a period of seven years in different capacities. His forthcoming books are ‘Local Government in Bangladesh: Contemporary Issues and Challenges’ from Routledge and ‘Disaster Risk Reduction in Bangladesh: Issues of Governance and Development’ from Springer respectively.

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