This 2020 Mid-Term Review takes stock of the achievements and challenges of the humanitarian response covering the period from January to July 2020, against both the 2020 Joint Response Plan (JRP) and its COVID-19 Response Plan addendum. Taking into consideration that the COVID-19 Response Plan covers the period of April – December, the 2020 Mid-Term Review exceptionally includes the month of July in order to provide a review of the COVID-19 response at its mid-way point.
In the first half of 2020, under the leadership of the Government of Bangladesh, the humanitarian community continued to seek protection and solutions for Rohingya2 women, men, boys and girls, as well as to provide support to vulnerable households in the host community. As the humanitarian response moved into the third year since the majority of the Rohingya refugee population in Cox’s Bazar fled Myanmar, some 860,000 Rohingya refugees reside in 34 overcrowded camps in the Ukhiya and Teknaf Upazilas3 of Cox’s Bazar District.
While humanitarian partners met priority needs within the framework of the 2020 JRP, from March onward, the response pivoted to focus on emergency preparedness and response for the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the severely congested conditions in the refugee camps, the high levels of vulnerability among the Rohingya refugees and nearby Bangladeshi communities, and a national healthcare system that was already under severe strain, the Government of Bangladesh and the humanitarian community quickly mobilized to mitigate and respond to the anticipated impacts of the pandemic sweeping across the globe. Modeling undertaken by John Hopkins University projected that, in a high transmission scenario, as many as 16,000 refugees across 34 camps could require hospitalization in a single day at the peak, yet only two Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds were available in Cox’s Bazar District at the start point. The first laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19 was identified in Cox’s Bazar District on 23 March.
Beginning in March, the Government of Bangladesh issued a series of directives and instructions to limit movement into and within Cox’s Bazar District and the refugee camps, and to restrict non-essential activities that could contribute to the spread of COVID-19. In coordination with the humanitarian community, the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) narrowed the scope of humanitarian operations to critical, lifesaving services only from 8 April, as an essential measure to help prevent the spread of the virus into the camps. This measure drastically reduced the footprint of the humanitarian response, with only some 20 percent of the previous levels of humanitarian staff entering the camps on a daily basis.
To ensure the delivery of the most critical services, refugee and host community women and men volunteers in the camps played an increasingly critical role in the humanitarian response. Humanitarian partners put remote management systems in place and worked together across Sectors to streamline activities where possible and make distributions less frequently with increased quantities to minimize exposure. These measures, and the rapid roll out of infection prevention and control (IPC) measures in the camps and across the District helped to slow the transmission of COVID-19 in the camps, with the first confirmed COVID-19 case of a Rohingya refugee identified on 14 May.
In order to highlight priorities within the planned 2020 JRP programmes and develop new COVID-19 response activities not foreseen or costed in the 2020 JRP, the humanitarian partners developed the COVID-19 Response Plan. This Addendum covers the period of April to December 2020. Within the framework of this plan, humanitarian partners continued to sustain the response to the priority humanitarian needs that existed before the pandemic, while at the same time strengthening and scaling up the additional activities needed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the overall protection environment.
By mid-2020, the Government of Bangladesh and the humanitarian community had significantly expanded the health response by building 12 Severe Acute Respiratory Infection Isolation and Treatment Centres (SARI ITCs) to serve the refugee and host communities. They also worked intensively to increase testing capacity, conduct extensive IPC training for health workers and refugee volunteers, and rapidly expand hygiene promotion and sanitation activities.
Across Sectors, the humanitarian community scaled up risk communication and community engagement activities and implemented a targeted strategy for the protection of older refugees and other vulnerable groups. Through the COVID-19 Response Plan, humanitarian partners reached an additional 509,000 vulnerable Bangladeshis in Cox’s Bazar District whose livelihoods have been disrupted by COVID-19. In tandem with the response to this unprecedented public health emergency, annual monsoon and cyclone preparedness and response programmes accelerated.
Despite these significant achievements, the COVID-19 pandemic presented pronounced challenges and contributed to a concerning deterioration in the overall protection environment in the camps, which is likely to persist until regular activities can be resumed. The restricted delivery of regular, essential services and the reduced presence of humanitarian actors in the camps has exacerbated the vulnerabilities of women, adolescent girls, children, older persons, transgender persons and those with disabilities. The limited number of protection actors in the camps resulted in a vacuum in conflict, mediation and legal services. Gender-based violence (GBV) is a particular concern.
Reflecting trends seen around world during the pandemic, intimate partner violence has increased, as has targeted violence against vulnerable groups such as transgender persons and sex workers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, women and girls have faced an increase in unpaid care work, greater protection risks in and out of their homes, and mental health issues, while simultaneously being less able to access lifesaving services and support. The closure of temporary learning centres for more than four months has not only interrupted education services for children and youth, but has also been accompanied by an uptick in the reported cases of violence against children, including negative coping mechanisms such as child labor, trafficking and child marriage. Another concern has been the delay in approval for the planned UN protection and humanitarian mission to Bhasan Char, which the Government initially requested after moving 306 refugees – most of whom are women and children – to the island in May, of whom 277 were rescued at sea by the Bangladesh Navy.
Even with the generous contributions from donors in the first half of the year, funding gaps remain for priority humanitarian activities, and the situation in the refugee camps and host communities remains fragile. The uncertainties of the global COVID-19 pandemic have compounded the already overwhelming sense of insecurity and trauma faced by Rohingya refugees. Beyond the emergency health response, the socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in Cox’s Bazar will require a long-term recovery plan to ensure that no one is left behind. Ongoing support and solidarity with the Rohingya refugee response and the communities that host them is fundamental. The following report charts the way forward, highlighting the key priorities that must be urgently addressed in the humanitarian response for the remainder of 2020.