Rohingya walk near closed shops in an alley of a refugee camp during a government-imposed lockdown of Cox's Bazar district as a preventive measure against Covid-19, in Ukhia, Bangladesh, on April 9, 2020. Photo: AFP / Mohammad Kalam

Along with being a major health risk, Covid-19 has proved to be a massive economic shock to much of the world. For those communities at the margins, their underlying vulnerabilities have been exposed even further. This especially applies to the Rohingya people, who are in the grips of one of their worst collective crises as a people. 

This August marked the third anniversary to the genocidal campaign conducted by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya people. The military strikes were designed to clear the Rohingya people from their ancestral homeland of Arakan (Rakhine state) and resulted in more than 700,000 Rohingya fleeing for their lives. Most of these refugees ended up huddled in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. 

In 1982, the Burmese military regime delisted the Rohingya as an official ethnicity within the country, in effect stripping them of citizenship. Since then, they have been gradually expelled from the country, an ethnic cleansing process that, sadly, has accelerated since the return of democracy to the country in 2011.

They are now a stateless diaspora of more than 3 million people, scattered across countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh, where more than a million are currently stuck. 

The immediate Covid-19 backlash faced by the Rohingya was seen in Malaysia. In April, two ships carrying Rohingya refugees were turned away from the coast by the Malaysian Navy. This sparked a wave of xenophobia, particularly online, among many locals who took out their lockdown-induced anxiety on the hapless Rohingya.

They were quickly branded collectively as burdensome and ungrateful. Several mosques and markets in the country began openly to bar Rohingya from entry, which was especially surprising as Malaysia has historically been known for its solidarity with the Rohingya’s plight. Similar nativist campaigns against the Rohingya were also seen in Saudi Arabia. 

In Cox’s Bazar, the first Covid-19 cases were seen in June and generated concern that the disease would spread like wildfire in the squalor of the camps where social distancing measures seem practically unenforceable. Fortunately, the spread of the disease has thus far been contained to manageable levels thanks to proactive testing. 

Friction between locals and Rohingya refugees is also on the rise, however. In August, a shooting incident with alleged Rohingya involvement sparked violent clashes in which houses and shops of Rohingya were vandalized. It is estimated that since 2017, more than 100 Rohingya in Bangladesh have been been victims of extrajudicial killings, according to Amnesty International.

In the backdrop of rising tensions, the Bangladeshi government is moving forward with a controversial plan to relocate many of the Rohingya to the remote island of Bhasan Char, where a supposed 100,000 housing plots are to be created. This endeavor has caused a certain amount of unease and uncertainty among Rohingya leaders, with human-rights organizations concerned that its conditions in the future could resemble a prison rather than a housing complex.  

With the solidarity of the Rohingya in many Muslim-majority countries being steadily eroded and with the material conditions of Rohingya in these countries having severely worsened since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, this development paints a bleak picture.

In the words of Muhammad Noor, director of the Rohingya Vision television station, “This situation has put a multitude of crises on the shoulders of Rohingya beyond its capacity to endure. And we are facing isolation as a people as Covid-19 has pushed the Rohingya issue down the list of priorities for many countries as you would expect. We are a community with very few options left.”

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Saqib Sheikh

Saqib Sheikh serves as project director of the Rohingya Project, a grassroots initiative for financial inclusion of stateless Rohingya worldwide, as well as adviser/co-founder for the Refugee Coalition of Malaysia, a network of 14 refugee communities based in Malaysia. He received his master's in communication from Purdue University in Indiana. He currently lectures on media and communication at Sunway University in Malaysia.