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First Confirmed COVID-19 Cases in Rohingya Refugee Camps Expose Urgent Need for Health Care, Information

Bangladesh officials today reported the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Rohingya refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, risking a potentially devastating public health crisis in the camps and in the region. Bangladeshi officials, with support from regional and international partners, must act immediately to improve conditions in the camps, access to health care, and access to reliable information, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said today.

“This is a potentially devastating health crisis in the making,” said Ranit Mishori, MD, senior medical advisor at PHR and professor of family medicine at Georgetown University. “The crowding, cramped living quarters, and poor access to health care, sanitation, and information pose enormous health and human rights risks to the Rohingya communities living in refugee camps in Bangladesh.”

“A COVID-19 outbreak could overwhelm local hospitals and contribute to increases in deaths and disease from other conditions endemic to the area and to refugee camps, said Dr. Mishori.

The Bangladesh government has confirmed 18,863 cases of COVID-19 and 283 deaths in the country as of May 14.

“PHR documentation helped to reveal the widespread and systematic violence perpetrated against the Rohingya in Myanmar,” said Phelim Kine, director of research and investigations at PHR. “Rohingya communities in Myanmar have been denied access to health care for decades, contributing to greater vulnerability to coronavirus and other health threats.”

“The internet blackout in Cox’s Bazaar, which has been in place for several months, not only limits Rohingya refugees’ access to reliable health information, but also hampers the ability of health workers to effectively coordinate and respond to coronavirus in the camps, which is essential. These restrictions on communication must be lifted immediately and urgently,” said Kine.

PHR has been documenting and advocating for accountability for human rights violations in Myanmar for more than 15 years, including the violent August 2017 crackdown by the Myanmar military on Rohingya people living in northern Rakhine state, which killed thousands and drove more than 720,000 refugees into neighboring Bangladesh.

PHR teams travelled to Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar between 2017 and 2019 to forensically evaluate survivors’ wounds and to listen to firsthand witness accounts of what happened during the crackdown. PHR’s work, which used medical forensic analysis to corroborate survivors’ stories, is detailed in our reports, “Please Tell the World What They Have Done to Us” and “Widespread and Systematic,” as well as 2019’s “Shot While Fleeing,” which highlights long-term disabilities resulting from the attacks.

PHR is currently using qualitative research methods – including interviews with health care workers with extensive experience delivering medical treatment to Rohingya survivors – to document the extent and severity of sexual violence perpetrated by the Myanmar security forces against Rohingya civilians.

On Tuesday, PHR sent an open letter to Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, urging the Myanmar government to protect persecuted ethnic minorities in the country from COVID-19.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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