Living like a Phoenix: Rohingyas amidst the Covid crisis in Bangladesh camps

In the aftermath of the first postive cases of the novel CoronaVirus infection in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, Sucharita Sengupta reports on their present condition, fears and vulnerabilities.

“Please atleast tell them we are not the only one who can  spread the corona virus”[i] were the exact words of Junaid (name changed), with whom I was exchanging text messages yesterday (9 June) on the seriousness of the situation in the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh. Junaid (18) is a Rohingya youth, heading a number of youth initiatives for social development and education of Rohingyas in the camps. He also works as a translator in the UNHCR and BRAC, working in the camps to provide aid. This message was enough to convey the extent of stigmatisation that is provoked by social distancing as the primary measure to control the public health crisis caused by the covid-19 pandemic. It has given rise to a new racial and apartheid regime for the lives in the margin, migrants and refugees[ii]. I did not ask whom he meant by ‘them’; some words are better left unuttered.

As of 10 June 2020, which is the 76th day of the lockdown in camps, 11 new tests have been conducted of which 5 have been reported as positives[iii]. The total number of refugees tested positive so far for the virus, while writing this piece is 35[iv]. According to a report updated by WHO on 31 May, 151 Rohingyas have been separated in quarantine isolation[v]. Worse is that, in the last 24 hours preceding 9 June, there was a widespread rumour of two more deaths in the camps due to the virus, although the official news in media is still one death[vi]. I have been to the camps last year in 2019 and seen the narrow lanes and tiny huts in the camps where in one small hut, basically comprising of one room, 7-8 people are crammed together. Does social distancing as a word ring any meaning here? Sanitisation, another keyword of protection from the pandemic is also a farce in the camps. The condition of regular sanitation, drainage, accessibility of drinking water and other parameters of basic hygiene were still underway last year when I had visited the camps housing one million refugees since 2017. Toilets were being built by Government or by NGOs throughout the 34 camps but supply of water or sanitisers were still to be sourced in, and tube wells were still being built to cover the vast land area of the camps. In this scenario, it is not very hard to imagine the nature or possibility of sanitisation in the camps at present. Faruq, another resident I could contact to know about the current situation said, “due to the lockdown NGO workers are unable to come to the camps and as a result we are devoid of sanitisers or other amenities that they could have provided us with. Our access to the outer world is otherwise pretty limited so neither do we know what to do nor we have information r4egarding the correct methods to protect ourselves”. Furthermore, there is tremendous fear among the refugees caused due lack or miscommunication of news. Faruq says, “I am educated but my parents are not, and they say god is going to save us from the virus, we don’t need anything else”.

A Rohingya refugee walks at a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, March 7, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

The major problems

It was extremely difficult to contact Junaid in the first place. He received my messages after two days and a telephonic conversation could not be established. He has remained one of my closest interlocutors from the camp, who had invited me to his home for delicious meals with his family last year and calls me his own didi (elder sister). I was concerned with early news of the novel corona virus infections coming from Bangladesh and entering the camps in end May. Quoting him here from his messages, – “We have been denied internet usage and phone access since the past six months in the camps. As a result, we mostly get to hear about the coronavirus through false rumours, as word of mouth circulates among camp residents. For instance, in April we were hearing in one country, 200,000 people have been infected and, in another thousands, and there is no way to know the truth. There is a lot of risk and fear among the camp residents. We are terrified of being abandoned at this time of extreme need and request the government of Bangladesh to allow internet access in the camps so that we can educate ourselves about the precautionary measures”[vii], although he adds soon how the Rohingyas are really thankful to the Bangladesh government for the help they have received till date. He also said, since the government announced the lockdown, prices of essential commodities and vegetables have skyrocketed. Help in terms of non-governmental agencies are also restricted now since entry to the camps are regulated much more. As a result, “one million Rohingya refugees are cramped, as if living in a concentration camp or in an air jail. This is the lowest possible standard of living that one can ever imagine and it is sad because my family in Myanmar was not so poor and it’s difficult for us to live like this. We also need a proper medical support which unfortunately we still do not have. Additionally, the quarantine facilities are so bad that we fear to get tested as no one wants to stay in the quarantine facilities”[viii]– he added. Junaid and his family fled Myanmar in 2017 August and since then have been living in the camps in Bangladesh. Again, I did not have the chance to ask him whether he knows the meaning of words like the concentration camp. It is however not clear what is the exact nature of the quarantine facility and whether the persons I have spoken to have witnessed it themselves.

Similar concerns surrounding information and quarantine fear among the refugees were echoed by well-known Rohingya activist in Bangladesh, Razia Sultana[ix], during our conversation. “Leak of information which are most of the times false rumours, or media publishing fake news have made the camp residents very worried. It is necessary that the isolation centres are managed by medical experts or trainers. The situation in anyway is very grave because Bangladesh is reeling under a lot of pressure to conduct tests of its own citizens and to deal with the crisis, hence adequate supply of test kits within the camps are out of question. We fear the moment tests will increase cases will increase too. There are also persons with symptoms who do not want to get tested and are hiding them in fear of the next steps like isolation or of the unknown[x]”. From my personal interactions with the camp residents, NGO workers and Bangladeshis residing around the camp area, the general perception of the refugees is them being uncouth/uncivil and ‘dirty’ hence it is not difficult to gauge the kind myth or thoughts that will be generated in the current scenario as the reactions to deal with the pandemic is unprecedented in history. Scholars like Didier Fassin in a recent interview on the virus argues that the health crisis is unprecedented not because of the pandemic but for the response to deal with it. The suspension of all economic activities at the global level, putting survival as the sole aim is what makes this moment unique in history. Therefore, the economic and social crisis induced by the situation will last longer than the pandemic rendering the already vulnerable sections to a more disadvantageous position. He asks, “…the question we must ask is the following: Is it even true that we are saving lives, and if so, which lives? In other words, there are two interrogations: Who is excluded from this process of saving lives? And how many lives will be lost because of the consequences of the confinement”? He argues that in this politics of numbers it is people like migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who will be out of it[xi]. In an almost similar argument fuelling a lot of controversy, Giorgio Agamben questions such a society that lives in fear and singles out survival as the only aim. Therefore, his famous coinage of the state of exception is now normalised[xii]

a 2018 photo of a Rohingya woman carrying water up to her camp. Credit: NPR.

As the world prepares to return to the ‘Normal’

While the world on the western side of the globe has now opened up their economy in stages, the east is still struggling with the first phase of living with the virus, opening up of the economy and retracing simultaneously on the decision. Both India and Bangladesh have shown such indecisiveness. Bangladesh reopened its economy in the end of May but is now deciding to again close down some parts of the capital and the camp area[xiii].  Slavoj Zizek in his new book on the pandemic argues it is difficult to return back to the normal. “There is no return to normal, the new ‘normal’ will have to be constructed on the ruins of our old lives.”[xiv]There will be a massive societal reorganisation after this where the focus should be on health care. The question in my mind here is what is a normal, daily life of refugee or stateless person also a refugee living in a camp? Or should we altogether abandon this question and not accept the current state order as the universal? Does doing so delegitimizes the movement for rights and citizenship? In a recently published report by the Calcutta Research Group, a question addressed in-depth is that how do we visualize the role of the migrant worker or refugees in the wake of such a public crisis, who fall at the juxtaposition of viability and invisibility, needed to manage the economy and voting but absent in policies or decisions?[xv]. Let’s keep the answers and arguments flowing while witnessing the world undergoing massive psychological and physical disbalances.

Sucharita Sengupta is a docotoral candidate at The Graduate Institute, Geneva. She has been researching the Rohingyas since 2015 and can be reached at sucharitaseng@gmail.com.


[i] Conversation with Junaid, living in the Rohingya camps, on 9 June 2020.

[ii] In no way does this sentence wishes to imply lack of agency of the vulnerable or portray them as solely hapless victims.

[iii] This particular information is gathered from direct message exchanges with some camp residents working as volunteers in different Ngo/Ingo’s.

[iv] “Bangladesh declares Areas Near Rohingya Camps As Covid 19 Red Zone”, Swarajya, 6 June 2020, https://swarajyamag.com/insta/bangladesh-declares-areas-near-rohingya-camps-in-coxs-bazar-as-covid-19-red-zone, accessed on 9 June 2020.

[v] ‘First Rohingya refugee dies from coronavirus in Bangladesh’, 2 June 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/rohingya-refugee-dies-coronavirus-bangladesh-camps-200602095409310.html , accesses on 10 June 2020.

[vi] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/rohingya-refugee-dies-coronavirus-bangladesh-camps-200602095409310.html

[vii] Same as FN 1.

[viii] Same as FN 1.

[ix] The conversations were ensued digitally between 2-9 June 2020.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] “An unprecedented Health Crisis : Didier Fassin on the Global Response to the Covid Pandemic”, published on 3 June 2020, https://www.ias.edu/ideas/fassin-covid-global-response .

[xii] Giorgio Agamben on coronavirus: “The enemy is not outside, it is within us”, 19 March 2020, https://bookhaven.stanford.edu/2020/03/giorgio-agamben-on-coronavirus-the-enemy-is-not-outside-it-is-within-us/

[xiii] Same as FN 3, https://swarajyamag.com/insta/bangladesh-declares-areas-near-rohingya-camps-in-coxs-bazar-as-covid-19-red-zone

[xiv] In an interview with Slavoj Zizek, `Brutal, Dark formula for Saving the World`, where he talks about his recent book, Pandemic! Covid-19 shakes the world, https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-slavoj-zizek-s-brutal-dark©formula-to-save-the-world-1.8898051 

[xv] ‘labour’s Burden of the Epidemic’ in Ranabir Samaddar (ed) Burdens of An Epidemic : A Policy Perspective on Covid- 19 and Migrant Labour, http://www.mcrg.ac.in/RLS_Migration_2020/Burdens_of_an_Epidemic.pdf

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