Aid workers warn of “nightmare scenario” . . .
On May 14, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the camps housing Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, a scenario humanitarian aid organizations have been dreading for weeks. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority that has faced violent persecution in their homeland in western Myanmar. Nearly three-quarters of the one million Rohingya living in eastern Bangladesh have arrived since 2017. This rapid influx has resulted in a severe overcrowding of these camps, thus making them highly susceptible to the virus’s spread. The lack of resources for sanitation measures and shortages of medical supplies and services also leave this population especially defenseless against an outbreak.
Race against time . . .
Humanitarian aid organizations have mobilized quickly to try to contain the outbreak. That includes contact tracing and isolating anyone the infected individual is believe to have come into contact with. In addition to immediate health concerns, aid organizations are likely fearful that news of positive cases could add to a secondary crisis. In recent weeks, hundreds of Rohingya have tried to leave Bangladesh by boat, many of them hoping to reach Malaysia. However, Malaysia has pushed back at least one boat, and Thailand declared that it will do the same. That has created a separate but related humanitarian crisis of desperate asylum seekers being stranded at sea, perilously short on water, food, and medical supplies.
Chance to show Canadian leadership . . .
Canada’s concern about the Rohingya issue pre-dates the current pandemic. In 2017 it appointed former interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae as its Special Envoy to Myanmar, with a mandate that included assessing conditions in the camps in Bangladesh. Ottawa demonstrated its commitment to the issue through its key, behind-the-scenes role in the genocide lawsuit brought by the Gambia to the International Court of Justice late last year. It would send a powerful signal to the international community – and most importantly, to the Rohingya – if Canada could help mobilize a multilateral effort to assist this vulnerable population in its time of great need.