Authorities near Myanmar's border with Bangladesh have told police to redouble efforts to stop illegal crossings, after a Rohingya refugee tested positive for COVID-19 after sneaking into Rakhine state, lawmakers and local officials said Monday.
Humanitarian aid workers have warned for months that the squalid overcrowded camps housing more than 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in southeastern Bangladesh are hotbeds for a serious outbreak of the virus.
Nearly three-quarters of the refugees in Bangladesh fled Rakhine after they were driven from their villages in a brutal military-led crackdown that began in August 2017. Small numbers are illegally crossing back into Myanmar, some in response to coronavirus concerns in the refugee camps in Bangladesh.
One 31-year-old Rohingya man who illegally had reentered Rakhine’s Maungdaw township from Bangladesh’s Thankhali refugee camp on May 30 along with four family members, was confirmed infected after undergoing a swab test. He is one of three people in Rakhine state who have tested positive for COVID-19.
“It is very concerning for the region during the COVID-19 outbreak period now [that] a Rohingya refugee in Maungdaw has tested positive,” said Maung Ohn, a lawmaker from Maungdaw township, adding that residents are worried about Rohingya refugees illegally crossing the border by boat.
Authorities must secure fencing between the two countries and stop turning a blind eye to illegal ferries transporting refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar, he said.
“Under the given conditions, the refugees who want to return will cross the border illegally,” said Soe Aung, administrator of Maungdaw district. “When they do, they will dodge the police outposts at the border fencing.”
Local government officials have asked border police to double down on security measures to stop illegal crossings, he added.
Seventeen Rohingya refugees illegally returned to Myanmar after March 30, and settled in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, Soe Aung said.
Officials learned about refugees who returned illegally from informants, said Aung Thaung Shwe, a lawmaker from Buthidaung township.
“It is hard to estimate how many returnees have arrived in Maungdaw since we’ve found many of them already in neighboring township Buthidaung,” he said. “It’s not safe for the people in the region.”
Village heads alerted
Government officials told RFA that the refugee repatriation program was temporarily suspended in early April amid the spread of the coronavirus.
It is believed that the refugees are deciding to go back to Myanmar through unofficial channels because of a growing number of COVID-19 cases in the displacement camps in Bangladesh, though RFA could not confirm this.
Authorities have requested that returnees pass through official repatriation camps to have medical screenings before they go to their villages.
Khin Maung, a town elder from Ywa Thit Kay ward of Maungdaw town, said if the returnees deliberately avoid being processed through the official repatriation facility and go directly to villages instead, they risk infecting many people if they are infected.
“We are working to prevent that from happening,” he said. “We have alerted the village heads to inform the authorities immediately if someone who illegally crosses the border has returned to the village.”
Aung Myaing, a displaced Rohingya at a Cox’s Bazaar refugee camp, said most Rohingya are not concerned about the coronavirus because they have received very little information about it.
Only about 700 Rohingya among the hundreds of thousands who fled to Bangladesh after the start of the 2017 violence conflicts have returned to Myanmar through various channels, said Soe Aung.
Myanmar and Bangladesh reached an initial agreement in November 2017 to begin repatriations, but many Rohingya have refused to return out of fear of continued repression and violence directed at them.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.