© Helvetas / Kamlesh Vyas
Zurich – 20. August 2020

Helvetas Supports the Rohingya in the World's Largest Refugee Camp in the Fight Against COVID-19 - Three Years After the Exodus

© Helvetas / Kamlesh Vyas

Almost one million children, women and men have been living in precarious conditions in the world's largest refugee camp in Bangladesh since their mass expulsion from Myanmar three years ago. Now COVID-19 is threatening the daily lives of the refugees. Helvetas is supporting the people on the ground.

Nowhere else do so many refugees live so closely together. And this has been going on for three years now. August 25, 2020 marks the third anniversary of the violent expulsion of the Rohingya from Myanmar. Since then, around one million people have been living under precarious conditions in 34 camps in the world's largest refugee camp and in surrounding villages with the local population in Bangladesh near Cox's Bazaar - without any prospects. Even after three years, a safe return to their homeland Myanmar is not foreseeable.

The situation has exacerbated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Living in the simplest huts, close together, with few water taps and sanitary facilities, it is hardly possible to observe hygiene and distance rules. Medical care is also not ideal, isolation and quarantine are hardly possible. Officially, over 3600 COVID-19 cases have been registered in the region around Cox's Bazaar so far (as of August 17, 2020) - including 79 Rohingya refugees. The number of unreported cases is high. Six coronavirus deaths in the refugee camp have been confirmed so far. There is a concern that the number of infections and severe outcomes of the disease will increase. Among people who are already severely traumatized by violence.

How the Swiss NGO supports the most vulnerable

The Swiss NGO Helvetas, which has been active in Bangladesh for 20 years and is well established locally, has been supporting the Rohingya refugees since their arrival three years ago with food, water, sanitation and health care, shelter and informal education - and now also in the fight against the virus. Around 160,000 Rohingya as well as local people living in the villages next to the camps benefit from the COVID-19 activities:

  • Information, education and prevention: Helvetas launched its first education campaign back in March. To ensure that people are informed in their own language and that there is no risk of infection from outsiders, Helvetas trained Rohingya volunteers to inform the population about the disease, its causes, symptoms and transmission routes, as well as prevention measures. They distribute leaflets with easy-to-understand rules of conduct.
  • Distribution of emergency hygiene articles: Helvetas also distributes vouchers for hygiene kits via Rohingya volunteers. These kits contain the most basic necessities: a 20-litre bucket, a 1.5-litre container for water, soap with a soap dish, disinfectant and powder for making a disinfectant solution. The refugees can pick up the material at reference points where they can also get food.
  • Distribution of seeds and emergency financial aid: Helvetas has provided seed and financial aid to families in particular need.
  • Improving sanitation facilities: Helvetas has helped to improve hygiene and sanitation from the very beginning and helped to build latrines. Now the NGO has ensured that health posts in the camp have hand washing stations, soap and disinfectant, and that heavily frequented places have hand washing stations.
  • Helping refugee families grow their own vegetables: Helvetas promotes the cultivation of vegetables on top of and next to the huts so that the refugee families, who often suffer from malnutrition, can eat better, which also strengthens their immune systems.

Glimmers of hope - and a new threat

Despite the difficult circumstances and the declining interest of the world community in the fate of these people, most Rohingya are simply thankful that their lives are no longer in danger and that they have enough water and food. They hope to be able to return to their home country - under humane conditions.

But for the time being, the monsoon season is approaching; whole rows of huts have already been washed away by heavy rainfall. Helvetas and other NGOs are also helping in this regard: families at risk are being warned and resettled.

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