Triple disaster in Bangladesh: cyclone, pandemic, human rights

Cyclone Amphan swept across eastern India and Bangladesh on the 20th May causing significant damage in its wake. Amphan was the first super cyclonic storm to form in the Bay of Bengal in over two decades. Bangladesh and India evacuated millions and fewer than 100 people are believed to have died. This is remarkable in terms of scale and timing—the logistics of evacuation are no mean feat, let alone during the middle of a global pandemic when many fear leaving their homes.

The Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, wrote last week in The Guardian to share her country’s successes at mitigating the impact of this cyclone. The country built an additional 10,500 shelters and widely distributed hygiene materials, recognising the additional risk posed by coronavirus through moving huge numbers of people. Now the country’s concerns are focused on rebuilding infrastructure and livelihoods. As Sheikh Hasina and her co-author rightly highlighted: “health, economic and climate resilience are interrelated” and have to be tackled as such.

So why, then, does the Bangladesh government continue to undermine Rohingya refugees’ abilities to protect themselves and survive the pandemic and hazards in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps?

Since September 2019, internet access in the camps has been cut. The government described this as a security measure but, as Human Rights Watch have documented, its proportionality and necessity were questionable even in those early months of the communication black out—let alone now, as the virus takes hold.

Rohingya refugees rely on the internet to enable transnational advocacy and to stay informed about the global fight to hold Myanmar to account for genocide against their community. This blackout continued over crucial months (November 2019-January 2020) where Myanmar was being challenged in the International Court of Justice about their genocidal abuses against the community in Rakhine.

Rohingya refugees also rely on the internet—Whatsapp and other platforms—to stay informed about the wellbeing of family and friends dispersed elsewhere in the world, and to transfer funds and support each other in non-monetary ways. These are vital forms of self-reliance that counter dependency on aid, keep community ties strong, and are key to the Rohingya’s sense of wellbeing and dignity—and they have been unilaterally removed by the Bangladesh government for nine months.

Cox’s Bazar Refugee Camps, Bangladesh. Photo // J. Field, 2018.

Since the global onset of COVID-19 in March 2020 and the disease’s entry into the refugee camps in the last few weeks, this communication blackout has created its own humanitarian crisis within a crisis. Three people in Cox’s Bazar have so far died from coronavirus, and 30 are in quarantine—though undetected cases may be much higher. The internet blackout has meant that aid workers have struggled to share information and advice about keeping safe and protecting against the disease—as well as advice about mitigating hazard risk, which is high in this area of Bangladesh. The lack of access Rohingya refugees have to any information about the global pandemic has resulted in the spread of misinformation around the camps; rumours are spreading that coronavirus is being injected in the refugees to kill them, or that they will get put in isolation facilities if they visit a doctor about symptoms.

This trust deficit comes from very real experiences of being isolated and put at physical risk by the Bangladesh authorities. Two boats of Rohingya refugees rescued from the sea after being refused entry in Thailand and Mayalsia in May were taken to the hazard-exposed and remote silt island Bhasan Char—ostensibly as a temporary measure to prevent the spread of the disease, but this is now likely to be indefinite.

Called by some a “prison island“, Bhasan Char is a three hour boat ride from the mainland and is prone to severe flooding and cyclones. The island also has no internet service, and is lacking many other basic services.

These actions are severely exacerbating refugee vulnerability and are combining to create a triple disaster for the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazaar: hazard vulnerability, pandemic health risk and a human rights crisis.

Sheikh Hasina’s lauding of success in Bangladesh’s global leadership around disaster management is both hollow and cynical when her government is—at the same time—actively exacerbating a hazard, pandemic and protection crisis for refugees that Bangladesh has an international responsibility to protect.

Jessica Field (Originally posted on 12 June 2020 on previous blog site)

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