Coronavirus News Asia

No ‘bitter end’ for Rohingya


When it comes to writing about the plight of refugees, one can often feel like a broken record. There is a disheartening sense that everything has been said, twice, and yet nothing changes for the better.

Indeed, there’s a kind of perverse Murphy’s Law at work. Every new twist marks an expansion of our understanding of the threshold for human misery, and of our capacity for failing our fellow man. This is particularly true for the Rohingya.

Things were grim before Covid-19. As though the curveball of a global pandemic wasn’t enough, there’s now a cyclonic system brewing over the Bay of Bengal.

In India, mass evacuations are under way and coastal populations are on high alert. Even if the intensity of the storm wanes somewhat before it makes landfall, it has the potential to deal a devastating blow to some of the most vulnerable people on the planet: the Rohingya refugees in the camps near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Even during a relatively mild monsoon season, landslides pose a real, mortal threat to those forced to inhabit the ramshackle tents that dot the barren hills.

Under an enforced internet blackout, the refugees have little access to information about the pandemic. They’ve been told to wash their hands and are attempting to shelter in place and practice “social distancing” – as effectively as one can when living elbow to elbow under a tarpaulin.

As International Rescue Committee (IRC) Bangladesh country director Manish Agrawal pointed out in a statement released last week, the population density of these camps is 40,000 to 70,000 people per square kilometer – “… at least 1.6 times the population density on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where the disease spread four times as fast [as] in Wuhan at the peak of the outbreak.”

My organization launched a program making reusable, washable cotton masks to distribute in the camps and host communities of Bangladesh, in a bid to boost preventive measures against disease spread, as well as promoting livelihoods during a time of great economic uncertainty. After all, there was little else we could do.

The news last week that the first cases of Covid-19 had been detected in and around the camps was at once horrifying and unsurprising.

As a humanitarian group that started as a search and rescue operation on the Mediterranean, we at Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) take a keen interest in maritime rescue policy.


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