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Bangladesh / Refugee Response: COVID-19 Response (16-31 July 2020)

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As of 31 July, WHO reported over 3,361 cases of COVID-19 in Cox’s Bazar. Over 70 refugees have tested positive for COVID-19, and six have sadly died to date. Some 39 refugees are in quarantine.

Testing in the camps has increased significantly as a result of the efforts of 1,400 refugee community health volunteers who are involved in an enhanced community-based surveillance initiative and offering targeted counselling for refugees identified with COVID-like symptoms, including on testing. To date, over 210 people have received treatment in two UNHCR-supported Severe Acute Respiratory Infection Isolation and Treatment Centres (SARI ITCs) in Ukhiya and Kutupalong in Cox’s Bazar. Patients include refugees and members of the host community. UNHCR is one among a number of other UN agencies and NGOs offering assistance to the people of Cox’s Bazar and refugees through health facilities, in support of the Bangladesh health authorities in Cox’s Bazar. To date, the health services put in place have had sufficient capacity to support all patients with COVID-19 and provide medical assistance.

An easing of some lockdown measures was allowed in Cox’s Bazar District. UNHCR and its partners are following guidelines set by Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) on activities that are permitted in the camps. The scope of permissible activities has been interpreted to include limited registration activities and expanded monsoon response and repair work. UNHCR and its partners continue to exercise care in conducting critical activities in the camps with a low footprint as the risk posed by the virus to the refugee community and humanitarian staff remains high.

Similar to trends seen elsewhere globally for refugees, the pandemic situation in Cox’s Bazar is negatively affecting the overall protection environment. Mitigating the short and longer-term social protection consequences of the pandemic, working to create and ensure ways to safeguard the resilience and psychosocial well-being of communities, and maintaining protection and humanitarian space are key priorities and challenges for the refugee response.

Protection monitoring and case support continues to be conducted by UNHCR and partners, including with the help of refugee volunteers. The reduced staff presence and of authorities in the camps, coupled with limited mobile communication possibilities, is resulting in delayed responses to referrals. The number of refugees in need of legal assistance and mediation is increasing. With the reduced numbers of protection staff in the camps, appointed community representatives (mahjis) have taken on a greater role in mediating disputes in a manner that is not always in line with basic protection principles and, in some cases, reportedly has involved abuse of authority, extortion and bribery. In cases involving domestic disputes and divorces, in particular, women are reportedly facing inequitable and unfair treatment. The socio-economic impact of COVID-19 is also having a negative impact on security in the camps, with petty crimes, rising disputes and tensions in the community, criminal groups expanding their activities, and heightened risks of traffickers and smugglers preying on vulnerable refugees and host communities alike.

UNHCR and its partners are following up on 5,000 child protection cases. The number of cases increased significantly after the COVID-19 response started. It is a serious indication of the impact and consequences of the pandemic on the refugee community. Children are exposed to heightened levels of violence, pressure to work, as well as abuse and neglect. These concerns have been raised through consultations with adolescents, children, and parents/caregivers. The closure of learning centres, child friendly centers and other venues for children has resulted in further exposure of children to protection risks, giving rise to increased behavioural challenges and the adoption of negative coping mechanisms. The Mental Health and Psychosocial Support working group (which UNHCR co-chairs) is increasing its work on psychological first aid for children, recognising the severe challenges children are facing.

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) continues to persist in the camps, especially intimate partner violence. The overall situation is having a severe impact on the health and well-being of women and girls particularly, including a worrying rise in girls talking about suicide. Child marriage continues to be of concern, affecting adolescent boys and girls between the ages of 14 and 17 years old. There is also an increased number of teenage pregnancies. UNHCR is working with the community, especially with men and boys, to develop a wider awareness of the harm caused by child marriage and gender inequality. UNHCR has also emphasized in discussion with the RRRC the need for official marriage and divorce certification to continue, despite COVID-19, in order for Camp-in-Charge officials to continue their important role in intervening and preventing child marriages. All facilities run by UNHCR’s SGBV partners in 20 camps, including case management services, continue to be prioritized.

As mentioned above, some mahjis are increasingly playing a negative role in the community, in particular through their involvement in mediating SGBV cases. They are charging fees as well as obstructing access to legal assistance, and in some cases threatening humanitarian staff and volunteers that attempt to provide legal assistance. UNHCR continues to advocate for representational community structures to be implemented in all camps, as have been piloted successfully in some camps. The agency has proposed this in the past, calling for representatives to be selected by the community through a transparent manner, with these bodies governed by terms of reference and a code of conduct.

In the midst of the pandemic, some refugees in Cox’s Bazar have also expressed concerns with the renewed discourse regarding potential relocation to Bhasan Char. They are anxious about separation from family members and social networks, and the uncertainty over the prospect of moving to a new living environment where their knowledge of services and conditions is limited.

UNHCR has received reports that the Bangladesh authorities have begun consulting with refugees in the camps regarding relocation to Bhasan Char and planning for initial “go-and-see” visits to the island. They include mahjis and family members of those refugees currently on Bhasan Char, who initially departed from the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps. UNHCR has encouraged “go and see” visits as a way to inform refugees about Bhasan Char, but the agency has not been involved in discussions with the refugees or planning for these visits.

In May 2020, the Government requested and the United Nations has agreed to undertake a protection and humanitarian mission to Bhasan Char to meet with the 306 Rohingya refugees transferred to the island and assess their immediate humanitarian situation and specific needs. The United Nations shared terms of reference with the Government and formed an interagency team of protection experts. Three months have passed since the refugees were transferred to Bhasan Char, and it is now urgent for the United Nations to have access to them.