Bangladesh: COVID-19 Restrictions on Rohingya Camps Imperil Refugees, HRW Says

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
200428-BD-COVID-Rohingya-1000.jpg Rohingya refugees move around a vegetable market inside the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh without any protective measures against the coronavirus, April 26, 2020.
Sunil Barua/BenarNews

Updated at 6:04 p.m. ET on 2020-04-29

Some Rohingya refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh are facing “serious food and water shortages,” Human Rights Watch warned Tuesday, following a coronavirus lockdown that has restricted services and facilities in the camps.

Bangladesh authorities however rejected the claim made in a HRW statement, which said that lockdown measures had cut humanitarian workers across refugee camps by 80 percent, putting refugees at severe risk of disease outbreak too.

“The Bangladesh government’s new Covid-19 restrictions on access to aid put Rohingya refugees at greater risk,” the New York-based global human rights watchdog said.

Close to 1 million Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar are sheltering at sprawling camps in Cox’s Bazar, a Bangladeshi district that borders Myanmar’s Rakhine state, home of the stateless Rohingya.

“Bangladesh authorities need to protect against the spread of COVID-19 in the Rohingya refugee camps, but every effort should be made to limit the harm from lockdown measures,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director.

“Any COVID-19-related restrictions shouldn’t significantly hinder aid groups’ ability to provide food, water, health care, and protection,” he said.

On Tuesday, Bangladesh’s tally of coronavirus infections surged to 6,462 after health authorities reported 549 new cases. Three new coronavirus fatalities were also recorded, taking the nation’s death toll to 155.

However, no COVID-19 cases have been detected yet in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, where 21 testing centers are located, according to officials.

In a move to contain the coronavirus pandemic, officials imposed a lockdown in early April in Cox’s Bazar. Officials said they had also sealed off the refugee camps in Ukhia and Teknaf sub-districts a day after authorities announced the lockdown, which restricts movements.

According to Human Rights Watch, some refugee camps already “are facing serious food and water shortages.”

Seventeen refugees from four settlements told HRW that food rations hadn’t been replenished and were dwindling, and that some areas had no drinking water, according to Human Rights Watch.

“Aid workers said the restrictions have led to disruptions in water and sanitation,” HRW added.

“One aid official reported receiving complaints about overflowing latrines in some areas because there are not enough staff members to address these issues,” the statement said.

Mahbub Alam Talukder, Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, rejected the charges.

“The lockdown has not disrupted the emergency services at the camps. The food distribution has been going on as usual. The allegation that food and water crises have been going on at camps are unfounded,” he told BenarNews.

“The medical treatment, sanitation, cleanliness and other urgent services have been going on as usual, while maintaining social distancing,” he added.

He said Bangladeshi authorities had kept vans carrying water containers on standby at the camps as they had anticipated a dry spell.

“The Rohingya families can even spare a portion from the quantity we provide them,” he said.

Sirajul Mostofa, a community leader and president of Rohingya Refugee Committee, told BenarNews that the number of aid workers at the camps had fallen sharply as a result of the movement restrictions.

“Everything, other than the emergency services, has come to a halt. The number of aid workers has come down drastically. Still, we are getting food. But if the lockdown continues in this way, we will face food and water crises,” Mostafa told BenarNews.

Saikat Biswas, spokesman for the Inter-Sector Coordination Group, which coordinates the work of relief agencies and NGOs in the area, said that all agencies involved in helping the refugees were following a coronavirus response plan.

“According to the response plan, the emergency services at the camps have been continuing,” he told BenarNews.

About 740,000 Rohingya fled to camps in and around southeastern Cox’s Bazar district from Rakhine state after the Myanmar military launched a brutal offensive in August 2017 in response to deadly attacks by a rebel group on government security posts.

They joined hundreds of thousands of other Rohingya who had previously crossed into Bangladesh after fleeing cycles of violence in Myanmar.

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