The Rohingya Refugee Update: Three Years On

10 September 2020

Midwife Rotna provides care to MInara's newborn baby at a UNFPA-supported health centre.
Midwife Rotna speaks with Minara about her newborn baby. Maternal health services are continuing despite the pandemic. © UNFPA

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh – The 25th of August marked a tragic anniversary: three years since the mass influx of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh from neighboring Myanmar. UNFPA continues to care for the Rohingya and provide updates on their work in the refugee camps.

Today, there are around 1 million Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh. Nearly 90 per cent of them are living in a network of 30-plus camps in Cox’s Bazar District. Crowding and hygiene conditions leave the Rohingya at risk of COVID-19.

Close collaboration between humanitarian partners, like UNFPA, and the Government of Bangladesh has limited the spread of the coronavirus within the camps. By 26 August, some 3,927 positive cases of infection had been reported  in Cox’s Bazar. Only 88 of them were within the refugee camps; the rest were within the broader host community.

Women walk down a path of a Rohingya refugee camp.
The pandemic has forced many humanitarian programmes in the camps to scale back. But UNFPA is undertaking infection-control measures to be able to continue many of its services.

Still, the situation is precarious, especially for women and children.

Prioritizing Rohingya women and girls during COVID-19

Pandemic-related movement restrictions have forced humanitarian actors to reduce activity in the camps. Despite these challenges, critical services – including sexual and reproductive health care and support for survivors of violence – have been maintained.

As of August, UNFPA’s support included some 23 women-friendly spaces, 22 health clinics, and 10 women-led community centers. Staff for these spaces included 144 midwives, 594 Rohingya health workers, and a total of 224 volunteers from two NGOs.

UNFPA adopted safety measures to protect staff and clients in all of these facilities and spaces. For instance, UNFPA has established hand-washing stations, given out personal protective equipment and hand sanitizers to health workers. The agency has also instituted physical distancing practices.

Where possible, UNFPA is providing remote referral information and services.

Rokeya stands in a women-led community centre.
Women-led households are most at risk right now. Rokeya, a widow, says she hopes things will turn around. © UNFPA

“A big sisterhood”

At one UNFPA-supported health center, staff updated us about a Rohingya refugee named Minara arrived with her newborn baby.

She explained that she first began visiting the center for family planning. UNFPA provides contraceptive counselling to help women make informed choices about whether and when to become pregnant.

“I have been here for three years, and I have used different types of contraceptive methods since then.” After deciding to become pregnant, she was able to receive prenatal care from the clinic.

Now, she says, “I get free care for my baby.”

Minara’s midwife, Rotna, arrived for their appointment wearing a mask and medical cap. She greeted Minara warmly.

As part of their updates, UNfpa provides Rotna with ongoing training so she can support the Rohingya community.

“At the beginning it was hard because of the language barrier. I speak Bangla, and Minara speaks the Rohingya language. But step by step, visit by visit, we managed to understand one another. I learned some Rohingya words and Minara learned some Bangla words.”

Now, she added, they have a sense of kinship. “It is a big sisterhood community here,” she said.

A sewing machine at a UNFPA-supported women's space.
The pandemic is taking a serious financial toll on families. © UNFPA

Hoping for a better future

In Cox’s Bazar, women-led households are most at risk. Conservative norms mean women have fewer opportunities to earn a living, and their families suffer more financial insecurity.

Rokeya, a Rohingya woman, remembers struggling when she first arrived in Bangladesh with her children. Her husband died in the violence in Myanmar. She collected wood from the forest to sell for money. “It was not enough,” she said.

She learned to sew through a women’s center, but life remains fragile. “Now, I am a skilled tailor, I received a sewing kit but I do not own a sewing machine. Because of COVID-19, the women-led community center was closed. I could not go there to use the sewing machine to earn income.”

Still, she is cautiously hopeful that things will turn around. “A happy life for me is getting a job so that I can support my family and educate my children. I want them to have a better future.”

The thought of a better future made Rokeya smile. But then, she added, almost to herself, “When?”

Dana Kirkegaard
Support women and girls during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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