Covid-19 in Bangladesh is creating a humanitarian, public health and economic crisis – along with rising tensions between Rohingya refugees and the host community

While western states grapple with an unprecedented pandemic, the fate of nations on the periphery is being largely overlooked. In Bangladesh, for example, a pre-existing humanitarian crisis is being exacerbated by a public health and economic crisis caused by Covid-19. This is creating challenges for – and tensions between – Rohingya refugees and host communities in Bangladesh, write Faria Ahmed and Nurul Huda Sakib

Countries on the world’s peripheries are highly vulnerable to social and economic shocks, which usually attract the attention of global media. Yet the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on advanced western societies has been so severe that countries such as Bangladesh, where the effects have been truly cataclysmic, have been largely overlooked.

Bangladesh, already suffering a humanitarian crisis, must now deal with a public health and economic crisis that has caused plummeting living standards and an alarming increase in social marginalisation. This is a dual crisis (humanitarian and economic) of dual peoples: not just Bangladesh natives but Rohingya refugees, hundreds of thousands of whom have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar since 2017 to escape persecution.

The impact of Covid-19 on Rohingya refugee camps 

A recent report from the International Labour Organization reveals that 87% of the Bangladesh labour force works in the ‘black economy’, which accounts for nearly 50% of GDP. Economists predict that Covid-19 will create millions of 'new-poor', and that 77% of families who work in the black economy will fall into poverty.

This ‘black economy’ is extremely fragile, and it has been devastated by Covid-19, especially in the areas near Rohingya camps. Indeed, crowded living conditions and the largely inaccessible locations of their camps has meant that Rohingyas have suffered even more than other marginalised groups in Bangladesh.

In early April, authorities enforced a full lockdown in Rohingya camps after discovering Covid-19 in Cox’s Bazar. All traffic in and out of the camps was banned, construction sites and shops closed, and even the presence of relief workers was cut by 80%.

A 22-year-old woman who visited primary healthcare at the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar said that, ‘because of this disease, the government has stopped all public transport… so we do not have any income now’.

Refugees living in the camps face constraints on their freedom of movement and, in any case, their camps are in remote locations. This means their job opportunities are largely restricted to either humanitarian aid or informal work in the on-site economy.

Some Rohingyas had been willing to leave the camps to work in low-skilled informal jobs. Lockdown has put an end to that

Some Rohingyas had been willing to leave the camps to work in low-skilled informal jobs. Lockdown has put an end to that, and for many there is only humanitarian aid left to live on.

 The plight of the host communities

Before the crisis, people in Ukhiya and Teknaf (a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar) relied on government-owned farmland and the reserved forests for their livelihoods. In 2017, following the Rohingyas' forced migration, these areas struggled to support the sudden influx, and host communities lost their food security.

The Rohingyas’ gradual entry into the informal labour market increased the supply of labour and drove down wages. Rising demand for daily essentials pushed up the price of fish, meat, vegetables, and public transport.

it is the Bangladeshi people who, lacking the safeguard of humanitarian aid, are now being hit the hardest

Before the pandemic, 60% of refugees and 37% of Bangladeshi natives worked in the informal sectors, which have been hit heavily by the pandemic. But it is the Bangladeshi people who, lacking the safeguard of humanitarian aid, are now being hit the hardest. Wages from the informal sector represented additional earnings for the Rohingyas – but for the host communities, they were their only source of income.

Rising tensions between refugees and hosts

The Bangladeshi host population is suffering food insecurity, rent arrears, and debt from health care expenses. Already in the low-income tier, they have no savings, and cannot cope with financial shocks. Without the safety net of humanitarian aid, they are likely to resort to exploitative jobs. Employment opportunities are limited, so informal workers in the host community around the camp will come to rely more heavily than ever on the camp itself.

Analysts warn that failing to resolve the host community problem could heighten tensions and generate more resistance to aid projects. Although the World Food Programme has started to give food aid to host communities, it is not enough. People struggle even to find fuel (wood) to cook their meals. According to a local schoolteacher, ‘aid is abundant for refugees but scarce for local communities.’

According to a local schoolteacher, ‘aid is abundant for refugees but scarce for local communities’

As AZM Anas writes in The New Humanitarian, the prolonged stay of Rohingya refugees means that Bangladeshi host communities are now losing their lands and economic opportunities. This year alone, projected expenses in Cox’s Bazar for daily necessities have risen by an estimated 50%, while daily wages have decreased by at least 15% and domestic rents have increased fivefold. Aid groups need to do more to help the host communities, or they risk fuelling hostility and drug trafficking.

Reflecting rising tensions between Rohingyas keen to establish their supremacy, and resistance from the Bangladesh host community, gang violence has become rife in Rohingya camps.

It is esssential, therefore, that any humanitarian response must address not just the needs of the Rohingyas but also those of the Bangladeshi host community.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Faria Ahmed Faria Ahmed Postgrad in Development Studies at Bangladesh University of Professionals More by this author
photograph of Nurul Huda Sakib Nurul Huda Sakib Associate Professor, Department of Government and Politics, Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh More by this author

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