Family members of Rohingya refugees sit in front their tents at Balukhali camp, Ukhiya in Coxsbazar, Bangladesh. (File image)

“If ever we needed reminding that we live in an interconnected world, the novel coronavirus has brought that home” – UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

It has been nearly two months of the lockdown, and most of the countries in the world are now closed, with increased border restrictions, immigration restrictions, travel bans, etc. The World Today is going through one of its worst public health emergencies and an economic crisis, which if goes uncontrolled might turn into a human rights crisis affecting the people coming from the most vulnerable sections of the society. Today due to the various restriction measures adopted by different governments around the world the refugees are becoming the worst affected by this pandemic.

Currently, various international organizations on migrations and UNHCR have suspended the resettlement of the refugees temporarily from March 10 as a preventive measure to fight the spread of COVID-19 affecting around 70 million displaced persons and 131 refugee-hosting countries. This has led to cases of refoulement of asylum seekers to their country of origin which can lead to a potential risk for them to get persecuted or even posed a threat to their life and liberty.

In Italy, ports were closed on the ground of basic of public health concerns. While in Malaysia, entry was denied to a boat carrying 200 Rohingya refugees on a similar ground like Italy, resulting in the death of around 30 Rohingya refugees in the sea. Even Canada, which argues to have a soft refugee policy, is now adopting hard-line approaches and denying entry to any asylum seekers. Thus, we can see a major shift in the policies of the countries in terms of recognizing the international laws for the protection of refugees.

The refugees are becoming one of the most vulnerable sections of the society to COVID-19 as most of the refugees live in the closed spaces of their refugee camps, in which it becomes pretty difficult for the government to enforce social distancing measures, quarantine facilities or even enforce some basic hygiene facilities to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Basic facilities like a soap bar, handwashing liquids are becoming products of life and death for the people living in the refugee camps. As a result of which to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19 from the refugee camps, the governments around the world are taking strict measures by putting the entire refugee camps into a ‘complete lockdown.’

In Kenya, its government has decided to put one of the world’s largest refugee camps in lockdown as a preventive measure to fight the spread of COVID-19 by banning movement to and from the refugee camp. Here “a possible outbreak of the coronavirus would be a disaster with a quarantine capacity for only 2,000 people in place and only one dedicated COVID-19 health facility including 110 beds for more than 270,000 people,” said Philippa Crosland-Taylor, of Geneva-based organisation CARE.

Rohingya camp
Representative photo. Image credit –
Representative photo. Image credit –

In Bangladesh, the government decision of enforcing complete lockdown in the refugee camp at ‘Cox Bazar’ seems to have impacted the refugees in a negative way as putting the refugee camps into a ‘complete lockdown’ have not only restricted the movement of the refugees from the camps but have also restricted the movement of ‘aid worker’ who were working in those camps. This has resulted in the spread of a lot of misinformation regarding COVID-19 among the refugees living in the camp and people were seen to be attending mass religious gathering to fight the spread of COVID-19.

At the same time reports are coming out from Bangladesh that newly-arrived Rohingya refugees, who happen to spend nearly two months at sea after fleeing from Myanmar, are currently quarantined by the Bangladeshi authorities without adequate access to aid on an unstable silt island in the Bay of Bengal. The authorities said they were holding the refugees, who had been adrift at sea for over two months, on Bhasan Char to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak in the camps.

Similarly, in India, it was reported in The Wire on May 1, 2020 that the government assistance which was provided to the migrant labourer did not include the Rohingya refugees living in Delhi as they were seen as ‘illegal migrants. Since most of these Refugees live in small space of the refugee camps, a potential infection of COVID-19 in a single person could lead to an uncontrollable outbreak as measures like social distancing and basic hygiene are exceedingly difficult to be followed in the refugee camp.

Steps taken by governments and other international organizations

Besides all this crisis, we can also find steps taken by various governments, international organizations, NGOs, or social workers who have been playing in the front foot to protect the lives and liberty of everyone including the Refugees. Like in India, the UNHCR office Delhi along with its several partner NGOs, has worked to distribute hygiene kits in the refugee areas and have also conducted several awareness camps. While the UNHCR office in Mexico, it is distributing soap bars for use in refugee shelters in Tijuana, Mexico, which is a home for people belonging to Central and South America claiming asylum due to human rights abuses.

At a global stage, the United Nations is scaling up its actions for the protection of refugees. The United Nations and its partner are working day and night in various refugee camps around the world to prevent the pandemic from effecting one of the vulnerable populations who are already facing other forms of a humanitarian crisis. The United Nations helped in setting up various measures to avoid community transmission of the virus in the refugee camps and is also providing basic sanitization facilities. Some NGOs like Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) are exploring remote learning options, for children of refugees to continue their schooling. However, since almost every country in the world is now affected by the COVID-19 pandemic it requires a global effort to uplift the status of the refugees upholding their basic human rights.

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