Coronavirus response flaws put older Rohingya refugees in imminent danger

Abul Hossain, around 85 years old, sits in his shelter in Camp #1 West (Kutupalong Camp), Bangladesh, 19 February 2019 © Amnesty/Reza Shahriar Rahman

Older Rohingya refugees in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh are being left behind in the humanitarian response to COVID-19, which could have devastating consequences given the high risks older people everywhere face from this deadly pandemic, Amnesty International said.

“I’m very afraid, because if the virus arrives to the camp, no one will be alive, as here many people are living in very small place,” said Hotiza, a Rohingya woman around 85 years old.  

Bangladesh, together with the UN and other humanitarian partners, has made efforts to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading to the camps outside Cox’s Bazar, including a decision, as of 23 March, to increase COVID-19-specific assistance, stop large gatherings, and order preventative measures. But basic, accurate information about the illness and measures to prevent its spread is failing to reach many people in the camps, and especially older people, as the humanitarian response pays insufficient attention to their specific needs.

“At the best of times, humanitarian organizations struggle or fail to meet the specific needs of older people in refugee and displacement camps. Repeating this same mistake amid the COVID-19 pandemic puts older Rohingya women and men in imminent danger – with some of them not even receiving the most basic information about what is happening and how they can best stay safe,” said Matt Wells, Crisis Response Deputy Director – Thematic Issues at Amnesty International.

“Donor countries and humanitarian organizations should urgently work together to remedy this lack of accessible information and implement a plan to ensure that older refugees are not left behind yet again in this time of elevated global risk.”

In the last week of March, Amnesty International interviewed 15 older Rohingya women and men living in seven of the 34 refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar, in south-eastern Bangladesh. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) indicates there are more than 31,500 refugees age 60 or older in the camps, among the almost 860,000 Rohingya forced to flee Myanmar, most of them since late 2017 as a result of crimes the UN has said likely amount to genocide.

Access to information for all residents has been restricted in the camps generally since the Bangladesh authorities cut off access to telecommunications and the internet in September 2019. Amnesty International, the UN, and many other organizations have called for such restrictions to be lifted immediately.

Sayeda, in her 80s, said: “I don’t know anything about that virus, just people are saying something about a virus on the megaphone, but I don’t hear well, that’s why I don’t know anything… I’m always thinking, what are they saying on the microphone.

“I didn’t hear any new things, just people are saying, ‘A disease is coming, pray,” said Abdu Salaam, 70, who said he had a physical disability that left him unable to walk well. He also lacked access to adequate care for pain and other significant health problems.

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