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With the coronavirus pandemic looming, the situation for the Rohingya is becoming increasingly desperate

As the global pandemic looms for many people in refugee camps, and at least six coronavirus cases already confirmed in the Rohingya camps, the situation is becoming increasingly desperate, says Sarah Champion MP | PA Images

4 min read

Rohingya Refugees are being fenced in and communication blocked, just as coronavirus cases are confirmed in camps, according to a new report from the International Development Committee.

Today, the International Development Committee launched its first report in this Parliament, which focussed on the humanitarian situation faced by the Rohingya.  

The horrendous plight of the Rohingya has been relatively well-documented. Forced out of their homeland, Myanmar, by violence and intimidation they have largely ended up in refugee camps in Bangladesh.  

Three years on and an International Court of Justice hearing later, it still seems there are no signs of a resolution. As the global pandemic looms for many people in refugee camps, and at least six coronavirus cases already confirmed in the Rohingya camps, the situation is becoming increasingly desperate. 

The conditions in Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar make containing the spread of any virus incredibly challenging. During our evidence gathering, we heard how cramped and crowded accommodation, lack of washing facilities, and scarce medical resources could all hamper efforts to ‘stop the spread’. 

But most alarmingly to me, was hearing how Bangladesh authorities have started building high fences around and between the camps, making access to aid even more challenging and penning people in, but also splitting communities. This isn’t how human beings should be treated – regardless of a global pandemic. The Rohingya have fled Myanmar because of threats to their freedoms – amongst other things -- and just where they are seeking refuge, their freedom is being further undermined.  

We’ve also heard how internet access has been severely limited. The Bangladesh authorities have imposed a communications ban – limiting mobile data and sim cards within the camps. This makes it much more difficult for individuals to access potentially life-saving public health information on how they can keep themselves safe during the pandemic, and crucially, report any symptoms to medics and aid workers.  

Aside from the problems that arise with coronavirus, I am haunted by one evidence submission received by the Committee. This was about an aid worker who, because of the communications ban, was unable to report an incident of trafficking within one of the camps. The aid worker couldn’t raise the alarm and save these incredibly vulnerable people. Whatever the reasons for this communications black-out, they cannot outweigh these risks.  

Our inquiry clearly demonstrates the Rohingya are continuing to suffer significant hardships. In addition to the coronavirus cases confirmed this week, a powerful cyclone is menacing the region and causing flooding in camps, further threatening their safety. How much more horror are these people expected to endure? A lasting solution must be found – and fast. 

The UK Government has been one of the largest donors to humanitarian relief within the camps, and it must urge other nations to follow suit. But humanitarian assistance can only go so far. More must be done at a political level to resolve the problem for the long term. 

Within our report, we are calling on the UK Government to press the Myanmar authorities to stop the human rights abuses which caused so many to flee Rakhine State in the first place, and there must be repercussions if they fail to do so. In 2018, Minister Alistair Burt told the Committee that the UK Government was reviewing its programme in Myanmar. We are seeking an update on this, and what has changed in terms of aid in Myanmar as a result of the continued suffering of the Rohingya. 

You may remember the harrowing news footage following the Rohingya as they made their way to camps. It prompted great anger at Myanmar’s lack of acceptance of its responsibilities. As a Committee, we will continue shining a light on the immense suffering experienced by up to one million displaced Rohingya, and we will not rest until the they feel they can return home safely and with dignity, or other satisfactory destinations are found.  

Sarah Champion is Labour MP for Rotherham and chair of the International Development Committee.

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