Skip to main content

Rohingya Refugees are being fenced in and communication blocked, just as coronavirus cases are confirmed in camps

22 May 2020

The crowded and unsanitary conditions in the Rohingya camps are likely to confound efforts to stop coronavirus spreading, warns the International Development Committee in its report, Humanitarian crises monitoring: the Rohingya.

Key findings

Most countries around the world are relying on social distancing to contain coronavirus. The population density of the refugee camps for the Rohingya makes this impossible. Overcrowding at service distribution points and the lack of washing facilities make efforts to control a possible outbreak difficult. Further, with a severe shortage of PPE and isolation beds, and no ventilators in the region, there is little help that cases can be effectively treated.
The Rohingya also have no access to online information on avoiding infection and are unable to easily report symptoms to medics, due to a ban on internet access and owning SIM cards by the Bangladesh authorities. The Committee also received reports of fences being built around and between the camps, potentially further restricting access to services and to each other.

Chair's comments

Sarah Champion MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

“The suffering of the Rohingya has moved us all, and as they face coronavirus, I find myself wondering, when will they get a break?
“They have been suffering for far too long in crowded, stressful and often unsanitary camps – conditions perfect for coronavirus to thrive. The UK Government must continue to lead the international response to support the Rohingya and apply its diplomatic muscle to preventing a humanitarian catastrophe. 
“I admire the Bangladesh Government for providing refuge, but in the short-term, they must be persuaded to open up internet access for life-saving advice and the ability to report symptoms, and to stop building fences limiting movement. 
“Long-term, more pressure must be applied to the Myanmar Government to end the despicable human rights abuses and threat of violence that prevent the Rohingya from returning home.”

International response

The international humanitarian community and the Bangladesh authorities have supported the Rohingya in the camps, providing basic services. However, systemic problems remain; children without education, adults without work and gender-based violence widespread in the camps.
The UK Government has made a substantial financial contribution to humanitarian relief within the camps and has taken steps to push for a lasting resolution. The Committee urges for this approach to continue, and for the UK to encourage other countries to follow suit. 
Large crowded camps cannot offer satisfactory permanent solutions for displaced people. The root of the crisis is in Myanmar. The military has faced multiple allegations of atrocities and violence, including violations of the Genocide Convention, in its treatment of the Rohingya. 
The International Court of Justice heard evidence and has indicated that the Myanmar Government take all possible steps to prevent further genocidal acts and preserve relevant evidence. It is unclear what Myanmar has done in this regard. Further, it is not known whether the Myanmar authorities have the political will, or public support, to take effective action stop the abuse and discrimination and to offer the Rohingya a peaceful long-term resolution.

Next steps

  • The UK Government must continue to support the displaced Rohingya living in camps in Cox's Bazar and should encourage other donors to contribute to the US$877 million required to fund the 2020 Joint Response Plan proposed by the UN.
  • The UK Government should continue to make representations to the Government of Bangladesh on the immediate lifting of the mobile internet ban affecting Cox's Bazar District and the lack of access to SIM cards for the Rohingya. It should make further representations regarding the fencing being erected around and between the camps.
  • The UK Government should also continue to make representations to the Government of Myanmar, on the equally unwelcome internet ban in Rakhine State and press them on the continuing allegations of ongoing human rights abuses in the area. The UK should continue to pressure Myanmar to comply with the measures defined by the International Court of Justice in January 2020 and the recommendations set out by the Rakhine Advisory Commission and the domestic Independent Commission of Enquiry.
  • The scope of this exercise did not cover the UK Government's long-term strategy for development programming in Myanmar. Minister Burt told the Committee in September 2018 that DFID was reviewing its programming in Myanmar. As part of any reply to the IDC report, DFID should set out the results of this review or confirm that the initiative was set aside. If completed, DFID should report how the UK's aid programme in Myanmar changed as a result.

Further information

Image: Tommy Trenchard Caritas CAFOD