The Rohingya population of Myanmar have been rendered stateless by their government and traumatised by decades of persecution by the Myanmar military. Their persecution intensified in 2017 when the Buddhist-majority military unleashed what the UN called a genocidal campaign.
The Rohingya were massacred, raped and their villages burnt. They poured over the borders into Bangladesh, a terrified and broken people with only the clothes on their backs.
With the outbreak of the coronavirus, the Bangladesh government has barred 80% of the aid workers from the refugee camps, and children are being denied basic life-saving vaccines.
Food is scarce, medical care almost non-existent, and latrines are flooding while there is not enough water for showers. There is a sense of hopelessness as their hosts are fed up with their presence. A mobile internet ban has made conditions worse.
Boats of desperate Rohingya are floating listlessly off the coasts of Bangladesh and Malaysia, as refugees make a last-ditch effort to flee their plight in Myanmar and the unbearable refugee camps in Bangladesh, but no government wants to accept them.
Bangladesh is at breaking point, with a million Rohingya in unsanitary refugee camps.
Human traffickers have capitalised on the tragedy, and are preying on some of the most vulnerable people on earth. The traffickers take whatever money the refugees have with promises of passage to freedom on rickety and overcrowded boats.
At least three boats of Rohingya refugees were adrift for more than 10 weeks off the coast of Bangladesh, and as the weeks wore on and food supplies were used up, the traffickers dumped dead bodies into the ocean one after another. The conditions on the boats can be likened to those of modern-day slave ships. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says many refugees suffer physical abuse at the hands of traffickers.
Of those who were rescued in April and May, hundreds were found to be malnourished and dehydrated. Hundreds more have been stranded on trawlers between Bangladesh and Malaysia as governments use the coronavirus as an excuse not to allow them ashore. Those who succeeded in getting to Bangladesh have been sent to an uninhabited silt island called Bhasan Char, which is accessible only by a three-hour boat ride.
This has been condemned by human rights activists who say the island is vulnerable to rising sea levels and storm surges. The refugees are without access to adequate food, health services or education – in effect dumped in an uninhabitable place as there they would be out of sight and therefore out of mind.
What happened to providing human security to all people equally?
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s foreign editor