COVID-19 protection refugee crisis

COVID-19 and PROTECTION in a protracted refugee crisis

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​​​25 May 2020​

How COVID-19 impacts refugees in Cox Baza​r and pose increased protection risks?​

Roughly one million Rohingya refugees are living in the huge congested camps in Cox's Bazar districts of Bangladesh on the border to Myanmar. It is one of the world's most protracted refugee situations. Much efforts have been invested to improve the situations for Rohingya refugees. And many efforts were fruitful.

“She had become stable through coping with the changing environment. She was happy. Earlier she did not have any work other than cooking and playing with her child. At the end of 2019, she got training and inputs for vegetable gardening. She started growing vegetable around her shelter. She started spending time in the garden. Her own garden. It was very good production."​ See: ​Story Nur Khalima, 20, camp 4, Kutupalong ​

However, several risks remained, especially for boys, girls and other vulnerable groups. Among these risks, kidnapping as well as trafficking, early marriage and general feelings of insecurity were most frequent. At the same time, issues of gender-based violence, including within the family, polygamy as well as sexual exploitation and abuse were among the most frequent and persistent safety and security concerns reported. Unfortunately, even before COVID-19, access to health facilities was a reason for concern for many Rohingya who felt that the facilities were poorly equipped, overcrowded, too far, or culturally inappropriate. Even access to sufficient food and nutrition, adequate education as well as access to gender separated latrines and bathing facilities has been a concern for many households in 2019.

Now COVID-19 has arrived in Cox Bazaar, with currently around 190 cases reported and around 100 tests conducted daily in the district. Due to the lockdown, schools are closed, gatherings are banned, non-essential Government and private sector organisations are closed, hence protection risks have been elevated to a new dimension. In the Camps the first confirmed cases have just been reported. See related link​.

Since mid-March humanitarian activities have been reduced drastically and limited to those deemed critical by the government - health, nutrition, water, food, gas, hygiene, sanitation and waste treatment.

Most development workers are now working from home – or from tiny hotel rooms - and the availability of personal protective gears is limited. At the same time access to the camps is extremely challenging and hence primary data is scarce. Helvetas maintains the link to beneficiaries through trained volunteers, for which good communication facilities are crucial. Furthermore, the government measures of limiting access to communication (internet and SIM cards) due security concerns since last year. The government is now limiting crucial access to information on the virus and communication with colleagues, partners and beneficiaries.

Apart from the risk of infection with the virus, food shortages and water issues as well as secondary risks are moving into the centre of attention. As the government still allows and encourages the support for health/hygiene, food as well as WASH, these activities ar​e continuing, however all other activities are hampered by the restrictive situation.

This leads to very challenging and ri​sky new situations.

As observed in many Western countries, the lockdown and fear of infection prevents people from using health facilities, which leads to increased untreated illnesses. At the same time, the COVID threat and new hygiene practices are challenging to explain to refugees and host communities and social distancing is difficult in a crowded camp. Women are also disproportionally at risk of being infected because they are the ones caring for family members falling ill. As a coping mechanism people resort to praying together during which social distancing is difficult to maintain.

Helvetas is distributing hygiene promotion kits among mosques, Rohingya and Host communities and massaging posters, training volunteers and conducting awareness sessions for refugees and host communities.

The Government is focusing on rice, beans and oil as a staple food. Hence, the main concern here is nutritious food and access to crucial vitamins and minerals, particularly for children. As illustrated in the story of Nur Khalima​, access to staples is an issue for many people during the lockdown. Own gardens are one crucial source of vegetables and additional cash. However, not everyone has a private garden and seeds are now hardly available.

Helvetas introduced vegetable selling and buying within the community, linkages with traders and agricultural input sellers (seeds, fertilizer and pesticides), capacity building and technical information provided over phone and getting prepared for next season home gardens.

With reduced humanitarian activities, WASH facilities suffer, which exacerbates the risks of vulnerable groups when using these facilities. Women for example who are restricted in movement due to religious constraints anyway, now face additional hygiene and security challenges when using these facilities, particularly during menstruation but also when going there alone and at odd times of the day.

Conditions for education and schooling at home are difficult as parents may not be able to support children and learning material is hardly available.  At the same time internet connections are very slow or inexistent, hence even if refugees would have access to the devices, online teaching is out of reach for children in the camps as well as vulnerable groups among the Bangladeshi host communities (see also Helvetas Bangladesh “Draw At Home" project).

The safety and security situation has deteriorated considerably and women and children are most at risk. Housing conditions in the camps are very crowded and thus privacy is hardly possible. Now men cannot go out to work for daily labour any longer and children are now supposed to be home-schooled and often elderly family members are also present. At the same time, women's movement is restricted, women friendly spaces are closed, and so large numbers of relatives are forced to stay at home. Additionally, some households are suffering from food shortages as well as hygiene and WASH issues.  Rumours about the virus are circulating, communication is limited which means that fear and confusion in the refugee and the host community population are hard to prevent.

Since the lockdown has reduced the presence of (I)NGOs and government officials in the camps, the Rohingya are worried. Analysis of BBC Media Action shows that people in the Rohingya community are concerned about the reduction in services since the start of the Covid-19 response. Some are finding this reduction to be just as worrying as the virus. See related link​

The recent first confirmed cases in the camps have created fear among families and even among well informed volunteers. At the same time the existing tensions between Rohingya and host communities have now increased further. In this difficult situation, domestic conflicts among family members are unavoidable. According to the volunteers in the camps, these conflicts range from increased gender-based violence, increased child marriage, child labour, intimate partner violence to sexual exploitation and abuse as well as general violence within and beyond the family. Unfortunately, the previously existing local support systems for people affected by violence are also on hold and the local authorities who are normally handling such cases had to reduce their presence in the camps. Hence support services are trying to do case management and help distressed women or children by phone, which is reported to be very challenging. Also trafficking of women and children as well as men hoping to get to Malaysia, is reportedly going up. Especially women and children are fearing to be kidnapped and trafficked out of the camps. Women and children are also not consulted on family decisions, for example about how money is spent, which may put them in danger.

With the monsoon season approaching, another concern is the lack of access to the camps which prevents the humanitarian actors from assisting the refugee communities to prepare the shelters for the heavy rains and storms.

Plans for the immediate f​​uture

Helvetas plans to keep working on public health issues, related to COVID-19 and to the post-COVID situation, and on food security, especially crucial vitamins and minerals. Furthermore, small income generation activities with refugees and host communities are foreseen. Helvetas and the international community are aware that the most vulnerable people are now at very high risk. The volunteers in the camps are hence continuously supported through distant training and coaching, so that they are in a better position to support the most vulnerable families and individuals. As much as possible, volunteers and community leaders are empowered to protect affected children, women and men affected by domestic violence.  At the same time, collecting gender specific data and ensuring that women and girls are consulted will be a priority.


​Photo ©Helvetas-Patrick Rohr