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By Kristy Siegfried | 22 May, 2020


Rohingya refugees face double threat from cyclone and COVID-19. Following the first reported cases of COVID-19 in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh last week, this week brought the threat of Cyclone Amphan – the strongest storm ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal. Although forecasts suggested the camps were not in the cyclone’s direct path, the storm still posed a major risk to refugees living in makeshift shelters on hillsides that are prone to landslides. Refugee volunteers distributed “tie-down kits” to reinforce shelters and on Wednesday three red flags were raised to warn refugees to stay inside. Following a night of heavy winds and rain, preliminary reports suggested that damage to the camps had been “fairly minimal” with no reported injuries, limited flooding and the destruction of about 100 shelters. With this month marking only the start of the monsoon season, and more cases of COVID-19 reported among the refugee population in Cox’s Bazar this week, Mayuu Ali, a Rohingya refugee living in the camps, writes for the Washington Post that he and his fellow refugees are enduring “one disaster after another” and urgently need more help from the international community.

Malta urged to bring ashore rescued refugees and migrants. The UN Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration on Thursday called on Malta and other EU States to bring ashore some 160 refugees and migrants who have been kept on board two tourist cruise vessels just outside Maltese territorial waters since being rescued at sea two weeks ago. In a joint statement, UNHCR and IOM said they were also deeply concerned by reports that States have been “ignoring or delaying responses to distress calls” and reminded them that their obligations under international law to assist people in distress “cannot be traded away with the offer of fuel and aid”. Malta has complained of a lack of European solidarity on relocations over the years, and so far, only France has offered to take in some of the people being held on the two tourist vessels. UNHCR and IOM said a clearly agreed system on relocations was urgently needed to end “a perpetual cycle of negotiations and ad-hoc arrangements” that put the lives and health of people at further risk.

Clashes in South Sudan leave hundreds dead and thousands displaced. An eruption of violence in South Sudan’s north-eastern Jonglei State has left hundreds of people dead, including three aid workers, and forced thousands of others to flee into the bush. The fighting broke out on Saturday in and around the town of Pieri and continued until Sunday afternoon, with homes torched and looted. Reuters reports that inter-communal violence in the country has risen in recent months and that the delay in the appointments of State governors has left a power vacuum at the local level. The International Committee of the Red Cross warned on Thursday that COVID-19 restrictions have made it more difficult to evacuate the wounded by air and to provide surgical care for trauma injuries.


Steven Corliss, UNHCR Representative in Bangladesh

How have preparations for this year’s monsoon season been impacted by COVID-19?

“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNHCR and our partners are only implementing the most critical activities in the Rohingya refugee settlements in Bangladesh. Reducing the number of humanitarian workers entering the camps each day helped to delay the arrival and slow the spread of the virus.

“Fewer humanitarian workers have meant that we rely more than ever on thousands of Rohingya refugee volunteers as the “backbone” of cyclone and monsoon preparedness efforts. Refugees are also the first responders when the high winds and heavy rains damage shelters, cause flooding and unleash landslides. They dig out survivors, ensure that children are not separated, and guide people uprooted by disaster to safe havens.”


US administration indefinitely extends border restrictions. Citing concerns about the continued spread of COVID-19, the US administration announced on Tuesday the indefinite extension of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order that allows authorities at the border to restrict entry to asylum-seekers and other migrants. The CDC said the order would be reviewed every 30 days and would remain in effect until its officials determine there is no longer a risk of coronavirus cases being introduced into the country. A group of public health experts from across the country wrote to administration officials to voice their opposition to the extension of the order, which they said “disregards alternative measures that can protect public health while preserving access to asylum and other protection”.

Hungary closes border transit zones for asylum-seekers. Hungary announced on Thursday that it will close two transit zones on its border with Serbia where asylum-seekers have been held while their asylum claims were being processed. The announcement followed a ruling by the European Court of Justice last week that four asylum-seekers kept at one of the transit zones for over a year had been unlawfully detained. Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff said the government disagreed with the ruling but would adhere to it by moving some 280 asylum-seekers from the transit zones to reception centres. He added that, in future, those seeking asylum in Hungary would have to submit their claims at embassies and consulates.

Coronavirus reaches Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camps. The Kenyan government confirmed this week that two people had tested positive for COVID-19 in the Dadaab refugee camps. The two individuals were placed in quarantine and then moved to isolation centres while the Ministry of Health began contact tracing. UNHCR said crowded conditions in the camps and stretched health services raised “serious concerns” about the vulnerability of its 217,000 residents to an outbreak. Another 320,000 Kenyans living near the camps are also vulnerable. UNHCR said it was working with other humanitarian agencies and the government to strengthen its COVID-19 measures, including through the construction of isolation and quarantine centres and the training of health workers and refugee community leaders and outreach workers on COVID-19.


Burundian refugee Innocent Havyarimana has been making and selling soap in Kenya’s Kakuma camp since 2015. Coronavirus has boosted demand for his products, but instead of raising prices to take advantage of the situation, he has lowered them so more people can keep themselves safe.


Despite a call on 23 March from UN Secretary-General António Guterres for a global ceasefire to address the COVID-19 pandemic, armed hostilities have continued in 19 countries, displacing at least 661,000 people around the world.