As COVID-19 restrictions start to ease in some parts of the developed world, the virus is only just beginning to spread in countries where most of the world’s 76 million refugees live.
More than 80 per cent of the world’s refugees are hosted in low-and-middle-income countries that are more likely to have inadequate healthcare systems, and are less able to cope with significant outbreaks.
This paints a bleak picture for people who live in refugee camps, especially when chronic overcrowding and the absence of basic amenities are taken into consideration.
According to a report from Plan International titled Close to Contagion, the concern about the impact of COVID-19 outbreaks in refugee camps cannot be overstated. And the wider consequences for girls and young women are devastating.
As schools have closed, girls who are internally displaced or living in refugee camps have lost their access to education and have little to no opportunity to learn remotely. Even before the pandemic, girls were only half as likely to enrol in secondary level schooling compared to their male counterparts. Current school closures also deprive girls of often essential physical protection, regular meals, and psychosocial support.
As movement restrictions and lockdowns are implemented to control the spread of the virus, there are decreasing opportunities to earn a living, and more young women and girls are suffering from gender-based violence and abuse. According to Plan International, there has been an uptick of intimate partner violence and child marriage in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.
In Cox’s Bazar, the world’s largest refugee camp on Bangladesh’s South-East coast, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in mid-May and since then, a crisis has been building.
Cox’s Bazar is home to one million people, half of whom are children, and social distancing is simply not an option in the densely packed camp. The Rohingya refugees there have fled persecution in Myanmar, many having experienced or witnessed extreme violence. According to health experts, many carry underlying health conditions with little access to healthcare and some have not received standard immunisations.
Fears escalate for girls and young women living in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp
Currently, Cox’s Bazar is in lockdown, fear levels are high and young women and girls have never been more vulnerable.
Plan International says that young women and girls are the demographic least likely to receive vital health information as the virus spreads. They are also facing increased threats of violence, child trafficking, child labour and early marriage.
For Habiba, a 24-year-old woman living in Cox’s Bazar, she’s noticed panic setting in within the community.
“Many people do not have access to mass media, internet and other sources of information in the camp, so that they do not have enough information about COVID-19,” she says.
“As a result, false rumours are spreading which is causing confusions in the community and having a negative impact on the life of everybody in the camp.”
Habiba is a member of Plan International’s Adolescent & Youth Learning Club, and usually conducts training sessions with fellow club members but currently all the learning centres are closed. It means her day-to-day life has changed completely under lockdown, and she’s finding herself looking after all her family member with little support.
Even with this added pressure, she’s been motivating community volunteers to host awareness raising sessions on COVID-19. Hand washing practices, wearing face masks, and maintaining personal hygiene are all part of her awareness sessions.
“I spend a few hours a day providing these sessions. I get the COVID-19 related information from Plan International and its partner organisation through mobile calls and short text messages,” she says.
For 16-year-old Meghla, COVID-19 has turned her life upside down. She’s not able to go to school and is having difficulty sleeping, feeling stressed about all the changes.
“I am very bored and can’t concentrate on my studies,” she says. “Most of the time, I go on social media or watch television to get information about the COVID-19 pandemic. I also try to help my mother with the housework.”
“At present, no one has been affected by the virus in my community, but the whole country is at risk and we don’t know who will be affected, or when.”
Despite all the challenges, Meghla is not losing hope and as a member of Plan Internatonal’s Youth Advisory Panel and an active member of Union Children’s Forum, she’s coming up with ideas of how she can support her community during the outbreak.
“I am thinking of ways to raise awareness among my neighbours and peers about handwashing, menstrual hygiene and preventing child marriage,” she says.
“As I can’t go out, social media and telephone conversation are the alternative. These days, getting or extending support to someone is very difficult due to social distancing.”
Meghla says the lockdown is preventing authorities from intervening in child marriages.
“I heard about a child marriage incident recently. I tried to stop it and informed the local authorities, however, unfortunately, they couldn’t respond in time due to lockdown.”
For young women in Cox’s Bazar who are pregnant, health check ups have been disrupted, causing stress and uncertainty.
19-year-old Rujina was married just a few months ago and is now pregnant with her first child. Her husband has lost all of his work and they are living with no income.
“We had saved a little money. Now we are using that. But in a very short time, this money will run out. I don’t know what we will do then,” she says.
“During my antenatal care visit, I learnt that pregnant women should lead a happy life and live in a friendly environment.
“But now I am locked down in my house and living in fear. I don’t know when this crisis will be over…When will I be able to get back to my normal life?”