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The Rohingya and COVID-19: Towards an inclusive and sustainable policy response

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By Marlene Spoerri, Yasmin Ullah and N. Chloé Nwangwu

Executive Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic represents a grave threat to the Rohingya community. Having fled decades of persecution by the Burmese military, the majority of Rohingya currently live in densely populated refugee camps in Bangladesh or in internal displacement camps in Rakhine State. Most are denied access to the internet, mobile phones, humanitarian aid, and sanitary conditions—all of which heighten the risk of infection and contagion. Since the emergence of the pandemic, both Myanmar and Bangladesh have come under international and domestic pressure to enact measures that would protect the Rohingya from widespread infection. While a major COVID-19 outbreak has thus far been avoided, several of the measures enforced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic—including internet bans, limitations on humanitarian access, and the denial of freedom of movement—risk further exacerbating the marginalization and exclusion of the Rohingya community, and threaten the Rohingya’s health and human rights over the long term.

It is imperative that steps are taken now, both to protect the Rohingya from widespread infection and to create the conditions whereby future tragedy can be preempted. This can only be achieved through an inclusive, international response, that places the short and long-term concerns of the Rohingya community at its core. Donor states, as well as members of the UN Security Council, European Union and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), should work urgently to:

(i) Launch a transformational aid response. The unprecedented challenge posed by COVID-19 will require an unprecedented global response that moves beyond business as usual and the standard operation of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA). It is imperative that States move boldly and rapidly to ensure that the Rohingya receive the support they need.

(ii) Establish benchmarks for an inclusive COVID-19 response. As multilateral organizations and individual Member States take steps to encourage an inclusive approach to COVID-19 in Myanmar and the camps of Cox’s Bazar, it is critical they establish concrete benchmarks.

(iii) Prioritize Rohingya inclusion. An inclusive COVID-19 response should lay the foundation for an inclusive electoral process and regular consultation with the Rohingya. This consultation is not happening.

(iv) Address the root causes of Rohingya vulnerability. The particular vulnerability of the Rohingya community is the result of decades-long persecution, marginalization and genocide by the Burmese military. Securing a long-term solution will require efforts that address the root-causes of their marginalization, and lay the foundation for their safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return home to Rakhine State.

The following pages assess the challenges confronted by the Rohingya community in Rakhine State and Cox’s Bazar and offer a set of policy recommendations designed to improve the life chances of the Rohingya community both now and in the future.