NGO Letter: Rohingya Response and COVID-19
April 3, 2020
Ambassador Earl Miller
U.S. Embassy Dhaka
Baridhara, Dhaka -1212
Dear Ambassador Miller:
As humanitarian, human rights and other concerned non-governmental organizations, we write this private letter to urge you to engage the government of Bangladesh on several issues that will undermine the ability to prevent and respond to the spread of COVID-19 in the Rohingya refugee camps. In turn, these impediments will exacerbate the risks to the Rohingya refugee and Bangladeshi host community populations of Cox’s Bazar. This matter is urgent as the entry of the virus into the camps is imminent at best, and is highly likely to have happened already.
The U.S. government has made significant contributions to the response on both sides of the border in terms of humanitarian assistance, diplomatic pressure, and bringing continued attention to bear. As the United States and rest of the world continue to grapple with the domestic challenges posed by COVID-19, we know that refugees will be some of the hardest hit communities. We recognize that the U.S. government is making a variety of much-needed investments to address global needs, but – at the same time – various actors within the government of Bangladesh are advancing significant impediments to an effective response.
With that in mind, we urge the U.S. government to immediately engage the government of Bangladesh – in collaboration with like-minded allies – on the following four concerns:
First, the government of Bangladesh should immediately end the telecommunications and mobile data ban that has been in place in the camps since September 2019. This should include the lifting of any restrictions that would prevent Rohingya refugees from obtaining SIM cards. As recently as Monday, March 30, the Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan stated that telecommunications restrictions would remain in place, and that he did not think that “activities of the government and other service providers in combating coronavirus or delivering essential services are being affected by the restrictions.”
However, this is not the case. The ban has prevented the Rohingya from being able to more freely access information and communicate effectively with their family and friends, all of which are critical in this type of outbreak. Refugees are often the first responders and frontline advocates for their protection. They must have access to all relevant information, and be fully empowered to participate in the response.
In terms of the humanitarian response more broadly, the ban undermines the ability for NGOs and civil society groups – including international, national and local Rohingya-led organizations – to run programs as effectively as possible and to provide timely services. Specific to COVID-19, there is no reasonable way to disseminate information on preventing the spread of the virus, counter rumors and potentially dangerous misinformation, or address what individuals should do if they suspect they have the virus without phone and data access. When individuals are known to have or are suspected of having the virus, there will be no way to do contact tracing or notify individuals of possible exposure.
Without the ability to contact relevant public health hotlines, refugees with symptoms will either not seek advice, or will seek advice at health posts in the camps, increasing person-to-person close contact, putting health providers at risk, and increasing the likelihood of exposure and transmission. Those who are unable to make it to a health post on their own – including the elderly, those with disabilities and those with severe symptoms – will have limited to no means of alerting healthcare providers or accessing services. This means the sick may be unable to effectively isolate themselves, and could die at home. These challenges are likely to increase with the start of the rainy season in May.
Finally, the telecommunications ban will obstruct the ability to transfer any Rohingya who need intensive care because of COVID-19 from the camps to the designated hospitals in the Cox’s Bazar district. Arranging transport and evacuation is not possible without reliable access to telecommunication networks. The continuation of the mobile data and telecommunications ban puts Rohingya and Bangladeshi lives at risk, and prohibits the ability for humanitarian organizations to respond effectively. It should be reversed as soon as possible.
Second, testing capacity needs to be quickly ramped up in the region and must include the Rohingya population. Until this week, there have not been any tests available for Cox’s Bazar despite it being designated as an additional testing site outside of Dhaka. The new testing facility in Cox’s Bazar is expected to be up and running on April 2, but the availability of tests remains extremely limited. The testing criteria in Bangladesh must also be adjusted so that cases of local transmission can be measured. The current testing criteria is for those with symptoms, and a relevant travel history, or confirmed contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, which does not provide a full picture of infections in Bangladesh. 
In addition, other challenges – limited number of isolation beds, lack of access to respirators, limited supplies of oxygen and limited access to intensive care medical facilities – make robust testing and access to mobile data all the more imperative even as we work to improve capacities to care for refugees and the host community alike.
Third, efforts to install fencing around the Rohingya refugee camps should be permanently suspended. In addition to posing larger rights and access-related challenges, fencing around any or all of the camps would significantly impede the ability of humanitarian actors to effectively prevent and respond to COVID-19. The military’s timeline of completing the fencing as early as the end of April would run directly into a critical window for addressing the spread of the virus, and even an extension of that timeline would pose significant risks. COVID-19 is a pressing example of the broader challenges posed by the military’s fencing plan that would turn the Rohingya refugee camps into what would be the largest enclosure of people in the world – over half of whom are children.
Finally, humanitarian access must be maintained for crucial services, and the information and rhetoric coming from various government entities within Bangladesh needs to improve. Already there have been cases of local authorities blocking access to the camps for humanitarian aid workers, and obstructing agencies’ ability to deliver essential, life-saving services. There are concerns moving forward that additional bureaucratic hurdles could further restrict the COVID-19 and broader humanitarian response. Likewise, incomplete, inaccurate and uncoordinated information from authorities on things like adjustments to services in the camps and continued access hinders the ability for humanitarian organizations to respond, and has put staff at unnecessary risk due to host community fears. Continued anti-Rohingya and anti-INGO rhetoric within the local media, too, is set to pose significant risks to the health and wellbeing of the Rohingya as well as the humanitarian staff working to address their needs. There are concerns that increased tensions could result in targeted attacks.
While the impediments mentioned above are critical to address in the context of COVID-19, the virus also presents an opportunity to remedy ongoing challenges that have and will continue to undermine the humanitarian response more broadly. If any of our organizations can be of assistance in this effort, please let us know.
We thank you for your time and continued attention to the plight of the Rohingya, and your support for the humanitarian response.
AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights
American Jewish World Service
Americans for Rohingya
Amnesty International USA
Burma Campaign UK
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Friends of Rohingya USA
Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
Human Rights Watch
Indianapolis Jewish Community
Institute for Asian Democracy
International Campaign for the Rohingya
Jewish Labor Committee
Jewish World Watch
Karen Organization of America
Minnesota Peace Project
Never Again Coalition
Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
Rohingya Human Rights Network
T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights
U.S Campaign for Burma
Union for Reform Judaism
United Nations Association of the USA
Win Without War
Cc: Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Robert A. Destro
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Carol Thompson O’Connell
Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator for USAID, Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, Tim Ziemer
Acting Director for USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance Carol Chan