COVID – 19 Preparedness and the Rohingya Refugee Crisis: Concrete Solutions Still Needed

By: Navdha Sharma

The Rohingya people are a Muslim minority who belong to the state of Rakhine in Myanmar. As it is a Buddhist-majority country, they often have been the victims of violence committed by the Myanmar authorities. The hatred the Rohingyas have faced is so intense, that “Muslim-free” sectors were constructed. The government has also denied them citizenship for decades. A lack of citizenship has also prevented them from having access to necessities such as health care services, education, and other fundamental rights. The Rohingyas have not even been included in the population census and are considered to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The stateless Rohingya population has been subjected to consecutive waves of massive violence and brutality. Subsequently, they started migrating out of their home state in the early 1990s. However in 2017, when the Rohingya militants attacked police posts, the largest ever wave of violence broke out in Rakhine. Instead of responding to the militants, the government deployed troops started fatally attacking civilians. The troops were even backed by the Buddhist crowd. Men were dragged onto streets and publicly beaten, women and girls were subjected to abuse and rape, babies were killed, and some of the refugees even drowned while trying to swim to neighboring countries for shelter. This violence caused the displacement of more than 745,000 people including more than 400,000 children. To escape from their home country, people had to cross dense forests, and even undertake risky sea voyages. Though a Muslim community in The Gambia had lodged a case in the International Court of Justice accusing Myanmar of committing genocide, Aung San Suu Kyi denied all allegations. Suu Kyi has been a symbol of human rights and had even been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize because of her contribution to challenging the brutal military rule in Myanmar while giving up her freedom. The lack of action against the violence against the Rohingyas was a dent in her image as a global peace icon. In February 2021, the military took over the country by staging a coup when their demand for a recount of the recent elections was not fulfilled. Aung San Suu Kyi and major members of her party who had won the election by a landslide were detained in unknown locations. Furthermore, a year-long state of emergency has been declared, and “free and fair” elections will be held after the emergency is over. The military takeover of the country has made the chances of Rohingyas returning to their home bleaker. 

The Rohingya refugees have no safe haven that is willing to accept them and offer them a permanent escape from their distressing past. The majority of the Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar took refuge in Bangladesh. Though the country has about a million refugees, it is refusing to treat the situation as a long-term crisis. The Bangladeshi government is only willing to focus on repatriations and had worked out formal routes with the Myanmar government for the refugees to return to their home country. But, none of the refugees are willing to use them as the Myanmar government has not offered them any necessary assurances like citizenship. In light of these developments, the Bangladesh government should move towards creating stable solutions.

In addition to Bangladesh, some of the refugees have also reached India, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. These countries have adopted deplorable policies towards refugees. Indonesia has declared that it will not house any Rohingyas and they will be treated as illegal immigrants. The country has been actively working towards this policy by turning away boats with refugees. While Malaysia is admitting the Rohingyas, they are also treated as illegal immigrants, have to work in poor conditions, and live in slums.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an organization of ten countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The purpose of this organization is to promote economic and political cooperation among the member states. Due to non-interference being one of the key principles of ASEAN, it has avoided taking substantial action to aid the Rohingya refugee crisis. This, however, is costing the lives of these refugees. The countries that are temporarily housing the refugees should call upon ASEAN to move past short-term planning and work together to build safe housing, improve refugees’ educational and livelihood opportunities, and support refugee-hosting communities while pressing for eventual repatriation.

Wherever there are Rohingya refugee camps, public health is a major concern. The temporary shelters, built with the help of bamboo, palm leaves, and bricks, are in close proximity to each other. The NGOs responsible for the various refugee camps try to maintain sanitary conditions as far as possible: the restrooms are built at a distance from the residential area, the space for washing clothes and utensils is also allocated separately. Some of the families are also told to form groups so that they can collaborate on the daily chores (like collecting water, firewood, and cooking). This ensures the use of limited resources to the fullest. Nonetheless, despite all these measures the fact that a small piece of land is being utilized to support a huge population, the transmission of communicable diseases, like water-borne diseases, becomes much easier. 

Since access to healthcare facilities is also limited, epidemiologists across the world were concerned regarding the safety of the Rohingya refugees when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. The rate of transmission of the virus being higher than usual only added to the concern. Fortunately, international organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) were prepared even before the first COVID-19 case arrived. Dr. Kai von Harbou, Head of WHO Emergency Sub-Office said, “The preparations for COVID-19 pandemic began months before the first confirmed case in the country.” This initial preparedness is the underlying cause as to why the refugee camps have been able to avoid an outbreak until now.

There is no end in sight for the Rohingya refugees even though the threat of COVID-19 has been avoided. They have been offered no concrete solution for 4 years now. It is in these circumstances that states across the globe need to join hands with organizations like the WHO and UNHCR to try and solve this humanitarian crisis.

%d bloggers like this: