Rohingya Muslims have been discarded by the international community and are at high risk for contracting Covid-19 in crowded living spaces.
The fate of more than one million Rohingya genocide survivors has never looked so grim in the three years since they fled their villages for the safety of the Bangladeshi border.
When summarising the plight of the Rohingya, "survivor" becomes the operative word, given their ongoing physical and psychological injuries, with most having witnessed their homes destroyed, mass killings, and their wives, mothers, and daughters raped, many whom were later burnt alive or hacked to death.
Around 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims cling to life within a small patch of territory in Myanmar's Rakhine State and a narrow corridor of land along the Teknaf-Cox's Bazaar highway. They have been rendered stateless with no security or fundamental human rights and have been discarded by the international community.
In the past month, however, their situation has moved from dire to catastrophic. It's likely the next great Rohingya tragedy is around the corner.
Rohingya refugees are not only stalked by the Covid-19 pandemic, but they're also being turned away from Muslim majority countries Malaysia and Bangladesh, threatened with deportation from India, and increasingly shelled by the Myanmar military in Rakhine State.
The United Nations has said 32, mostly Rohingya women and children, were killed by the Myanmar military in Rakhine and Chin provinces during March.
Myanmar denies the deliberate targeting of civilians, arguing it shells only the Arakan Army militants, a Buddhist separatist group, but eyewitnesses and human rights activists have refuted its claims with a trove of evidence.
"The Myanmar military have operated from the same brutal playbook for decades," says Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International's Director of Crisis Response. "Despite international condemnation over the Myanmar military's atrocities, all evidence suggests that they are brazenly committing yet more serious abuses."
When I spoke with Mohammed Salam, chairman of a local Rohingya welfare committee in Rakhine State for TRT World last year, he described to me how a Myanmar military gunship attacked a Rohingya village in the township of Buthidaung.
"A half dozen were killed, and the injured were taken to the hospital in Buthidaung, which is running out of medicines and anaesthesia," he said. "We are trapped in a genocide zone," given Myanmar's security forces have effectively ring-fenced more than 200,000 Rohingya in the northwestern corner of the country.
The civilian death toll mounts, with a 15-year-old Rohingya boy, killed when the Myanmar military shelled his village on Wednesday, and a young man in his early twenties murdered when 20 soldiers entered the village of Minbya on Thursday evening.
The international community had promised the establishment of "safe zones", but nothing has materialised. The Myanmar military has since escalated artillery attacks on Arakan Army positions and Rohingya villages that have sparked another exodus and several civilian casualties.
Last week, the Bangladesh Navy and Coast Guard denied two boats carrying approximately 500 Rohingya from entering Bangladeshi waters, after the country's foreign minister Dr Momen declared, "No more Rohingya will be allowed in."
On April 16, Malaysian authorities intercepted a boat carrying 396 refugees, which had been adrift for weeks, resulting in an estimated 60 deaths at sea.
"We held on board their funeral prayers and dropped their bodies in the sea," one survivor told AFP.
Compounding their misery, Malaysian authorities prevented the boat from entering Malaysian territorial waters, after false rumours spread through the country that refugees were infected with Covid-19.
That said, the Covid-19 virus is yet to strike the Rohingya in Bangladesh, but if, or more likely when it does, the outcome will be predictably disastrous, given every square mile of the refugee camps is home to 100,000 refugees, who are essentially crammed together "like sardines," thus making social distancing and quarantine measures virtually impossible.
"We need emergency support. We are very worried the NGO groups here don't have facemasks or hand sanitizer. No one test positive to diseases yet but it will be very bad when someone does," Satar Islam Nitob, a Rohingya refugee at Kutapalong camp, told me over the phone last week.
Some, including Azeem Ibrahim, author of The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar's Hidden Genocide, have estimated upwards of 200,000 Rohingya could be killed by Covid-19 due to overcrowded living conditions and limited access to medical supplies.
"In the best-case scenarios, scientists believe that the disease could have a mortality rate as low as under 1 percent…In conditions such as those in Cox's Bazar, mortality rates could easily reach 20 percent…We are talking 200,000 people. An order of magnitude more than those killed by the Myanmar military," writes Ibrahim.
Adding to their woes is the fact the Bangladesh government has shut down Internet access in the camps, which, according to Human Rights Watch, is "obstructing humanitarian groups from addressing Covid-19."
"Authorities should lift the internet shutdown, which is obstructing crucial information about symptoms and prevention, or end up risking the lives of refugees, host communities, and healthcare workers," says Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch Asia Director.
No doubt, the entire planet is locked in a battle against the global pandemic, but that doesn't absolve the international community, particularly the United Nations, ASEAN, or Organization of Islamic Cooperation member states, of its responsibility to resolve this ongoing humanitarian crisis. Far too many lives depend on it.
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