The Rohingya are among the world’s most persecuted ethnic minorities — haunted by the past and denied a future.
As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the world and into their squalid refugee camps, they’re confronted by another grim prospect: separation from loved ones.
“There’s Covid-19, it’s quite clearly spreading in the camps. But the Rohingya will not go to get tested,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Asia at Human Rights Watch.
“They are afraid of being taken from their family, they are afraid of being isolated, they’re afraid of being taken to this horrible detention island called Bhasan Char — which is in the middle of nowhere… It’s like a Rohingya Alcatraz,” he said, referring to the former island prison in San Francisco.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority from Rakhine state in western Myanmar — formerly known as Burma. Most fled their homes after the military launched a brutal crackdown in August 2017.
Today, nearly a million Rohingya refugees live in cramped, temporary housing in the Bangladesh district of Cox’s Bazar, home to one of the world’s largest settlement camps.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees told CNBC there were 50 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 5 deaths among the refugees in Cox’s Bazar as of July 1. Testing was ramped up to 700 a day, and about 0.06% of the 860,000 Rohingya in the camps have been tested. Additionally, Myanmar’s health ministry reported 10 confirmed cases in Rakhine, UNHCR said.
A landscape view in the Balukhali camp, a Rohingya refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on Feb. 11, 2019.
Kazi Salahuddin Razu | NurPhoto | Getty Images
It’s hard to know the true extent of the outbreak among the Rohingya, argued Robertson.
“People are refusing to go. I think the only people you’re really seeing that turn up and get tested are the people who are gravely ill, and have no other choice … they need to get treatment or they may die.”
“We have noticed a decline in the number of refugees approaching health facilities for COVID-19 symptoms in the last weeks,” said Louise Donovan, a communications officer at UNHCR. She said there appears to be “fear and anxiety among refugees,” as those who volunteered to be tested had to be isolated for precautionary reasons.
Additionally, an internet shutdown in camps in Bangladesh and some towns in Rakhine “has meant that people in some villages are unaware of the Covid-19 outbreak,” Human Rights Watch said.
Flight from Rakhine
Often referred to as “the most persecuted minority in the world,” the Rohingya have endured decades of oppression and human rights abuses.
A citizenship law in 1982 stripped them of their nationality, making them one of the world’s largest stateless communities.
Rohingya are seen after arriving on a boat to Bangladesh on September 14, 2017 in Shah Porir Dip, Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh since August 2017 during the outbreak of violence in the Rakhine state.
Allison Joyce | Getty Images
While there have been large migrations to Bangladesh since the 1970s, none was as rapid and massive as the August 2017 exodus that thrust the Rohingya crisis onto the world stage.
More than 740,000 Rohingya were violently uprooted in the months that followed, driven by a brutal military crackdown that reportedly killed thousands of Muslims.
At least half of those who arrived in Bangladesh were children. It was a migration that was “unprecedented in terms of volume and speed,” the UN said.
Hundreds of victims and witnesses described scenes of indiscriminate killing, including of children and the elderly. Victims spoke of torture, rape, looting and destruction. Satellite images showed hundreds of villages razed.
Rohingya children playing games in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on December 11, 2019.
Allison Joyce | Getty Images
Myanmar’s security forces said it was a counter-offensive aimed at rooting out terrorism. What sparked the campaign was a series of attacks carried out by Rohingya extremists, who killed 12 members of the Burmese security forces in August 2017.
The UN condemned the operation as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and its High Commissioner for Human Rights at that time slammed the response as “clearly disproportionate” and “without regard for basic principles of international law.”
Approximately 600,000 Rohingya are still inside Myanmar “living under threat of genocide,” said the UN’s fact-finding mission on Myanmar.
Calls for accountability
The Rohingya want justice, Robertson said. They want those who committed the crimes against them to be held accountable.
Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been accused of failing to protect the Rohingya. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate, once touted as the embodiment of democracy, has been criticized for forsaking the oppressed.
In a January op-ed for the Financial Times, Suu Kyi defended her government. She noted that the UN’s independent commission interviewed close to 1,500 witnesses, but she claimed the report said that “some refugees may have provided inaccurate or exaggerated information.”
While acknowledging that “the report details killing of civilians, disproportionate use of force, looting of property, and destruction of abandoned homes of Muslims,” she maintained that the commission “found no evidence of genocide.”
Robertson from Human Rights Watch strongly criticized the former democracy icon.
“She has moved beyond just being a bystander — or someone who wasn’t involved — to become part of the cover-up,” he said.
The Myanmar government did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
What the future holds
Education brings hope for a brighter future to the Rohingya children, said Shairose Mawji, Bangladesh chief of field services at UNICEF.
“Education not only brings knowledge and skills, it also brings hope to children and help counter the frustration and despair of their situation,” Mawji told CNBC in an email. “Without adequate opportunities for learning, they are more exposed to dangers of trafficking, child marriage, exploitation and abuse.”
A student writes on the board during class in a shelter in the refugee camp on October 28, 2019 in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Allison Joyce | Getty Images
There are currently more than 465,000 Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh.
The country agreed in January to grant 10,000 Rohingya students access to a formal school curriculum, a pilot program targeted at those from grades six to nine. It will eventually expand to others, Mawji said.
Still, only about 13% of teenage boys and 2% of adolescent girls have access to education in the camps, said the UN children’s agency, pointing out that girls were disproportionately affected.
Rights groups hailed the pilot program as a small victory, but Robertson was quick to point out that 10,000 kids “is not a lot when you’re talking about over a million refugees.”
“What you see is a stunting of the educational aspirations of the Rohingya — an entire generation of children who are not getting educated,” he added.
The UNHCR was more hopeful.
“With the right investment in education, Rohingya children can begin to chart their own destinies and contribute more to their communities,” Mawji said.