Amnesty International: Coronavirus response flaws put older Rohingya refugees at risk


Most older people interviewed by Amnesty International have received little to no information about Covid-19

Older Rohingya refugees in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh are being left behind in the humanitarian response to Covid-19, which could have devastating consequences given the high risks older people everywhere face from this deadly pandemic, Amnesty International said on Monday.

“At the best of times, humanitarian organizations struggle or fail to meet the specific needs of older people in refugee and displacement camps,” said Matt Wells, Crisis Response deputy director – Thematic Issues at Amnesty International

“Repeating this same mistake amid the Covid-19 pandemic puts older Rohingya women and men in imminent danger – with some of them not even receiving the most basic information about what is happening and how they can best stay safe,” he added.

Mistakes being repeated

In June 2019, Amnesty International released a report on the impact of conflict and displacement on older people in Myanmar. It examined how, in the Bangladesh refugee camps, the humanitarian response has failed to respect older people’s rights to health, food, water, and sanitation.

At present, the UN Global Humanitarian Response Plan to Covid-19 did not include older people as a separate “most affected and at-risk population group”, unlike children, and women and girls.

Rather, “old age” was included at the end of a list of “conditions” framed as “people suffering from…”

According to Amnesty International, this categorization undervalued the risks of coronavirus for older people, by not including them as a specific group; and propagated a discriminatory idea that older age is something one “suffers from.”

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) indicates there are more than 31,500 refugees aged 60 or older in the camps. 

In the last week of March, Amnesty International interviewed 15 older Rohingya women and men living in seven of the 34 refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. 

Most older people recently interviewed by Amnesty International had received little information about Covid-19. Before large gatherings were barred and preventative measures like social distancing were ordered, there were some informational meetings in the camps, but many older people were not informed. 

Those who knew about them were unable to attend because of physical disabilities.

Only one of the 15 older people interviewed by Amnesty International had anyone visit their shelter to provide information about Covid-19. A few others received news through family members about the disease and preventative measures like frequent hand-washing.

Most had heard primarily from religious leaders and neighbours, with little detail other than the virus was very dangerous and they needed to “live clean”. As a result, fear is rampant.

Improving the Covid-19 response

The humanitarian response needs to tap into networks of Rohingya volunteers who can go shelter-to-shelter to inform older people and to hear about how to best prepare a response that meets their needs.

Volunteers should be carefully trained to ensure they do not expose older people to infection, including by maintaining as much distance as possible during shelter visits.

Older people are also particularly at risk of being harmed by well-meaning restrictive measures which may disrupt their access to food and health care.

 “Older displaced people face a devastating combination: they are the group most at-risk of Covid-19 infection, and they are also the group least included in humanitarian response. 

“Their invisibility must end now. Governments, donors, and humanitarian organizations must put older people at the centre of their planning and response, to minimize the deadly consequences of this global pandemic,” said Matt Wells.

So far, coronavirus, a pandemic declared by World Health Organization, has infected 123 people and killed 12 people in Bangladesh.

The fast-spreading coronavirus has claimed more than 70,000 lives and infected more than 1,285,000 people across the world till date, according to worldometer.