How the World’s Largest Refugee Camp is Coping during the Coronavirus Pandemic

Jamanida, a mother and Rohingya refugee, fled violence to seek refuge in the world’s biggest refugee camp. Now, living in an overcrowded and under-resourced camp, she’s doing her best to take precautions against contracting COVID-19.

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“They were chasing us, killing people in front of us,” says Jamanida, 27, a Rohingya refugee, as she recalls the traumatic experiences that led her to flee Myanmar.

After her house burned down, Jamanida, along with her husband and four children, ages 9, 7, 4, and 2, knew they had to leave. “We were in terror, thinking they might catch us.”

The family embarked on a treacherous journey to seek refuge near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, the site of the world’s largest refugee camp, which hosts an estimated 855,000 people.

“We had to swim to get here,” Jamanida says. “It was raining. There was mud all over. We had our children with us. Their father was [carrying] them on his shoulder.”

Jamanida and her family at their home in Cox's Bazar. All photos by Josh Estey/CARE.

Nearly one million Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh since 2017 after violence escalated in Myanmar. The Rohingya people have faced decades of discrimination and statelessness, with a spike in violence in recent years.

Many other Rohingya share Jamanida’s experience.

“Almost all [women we spoke with in the camps] appear traumatized. Many trekked barefoot for days, through fields, jungles and rivers to get here,” former CARE Bangladesh Country Director Zia Choudhury explained after hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar flooded into Bangladesh in late 2017 and early 2018.

As with many other refugee camps, conditions are dire, and resources are limited. Deepmala Mahla, CARE’s Regional Director for Asia, says homes are flimsy shelters made of bamboo with straw roofs. “The entire family lives in one room and they share all water and hygiene facilities, like taps to collect their drinking water, handwashing points, latrines, which means not only are people using a single facility, they are overcrowded.”

While these conditions are always a health risk, they are particularly concerning during the coronavirus pandemic and could trigger an outbreak. Although Cox’s Bazar has been under lockdown since March, the virus was detected in the camps in May. As of June 15, there were 38 positive COVID-19 cases and two deaths in the camp.

Health services are limited and there are no intensive care beds in the camp.

A view of the cramped layout of the refugee camps at Cox's Bazar.

“When I think about a COVID-19 outbreak in Cox’s Bazar, I shudder to think what it could be in terms of the magnitude and the implications,” Deepmala says.

The camps in Cox’s Bazar are nearly four times as dense as New York City and eight times that of Wuhan, making social distancing practically impossible. Washroom facilities in the camps are public and often overcrowded, which increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

CARE, which has worked in Bangladesh since 1949, is supporting refugees with food, disaster risk reduction, women’s empowerment programs and emergency aid. CARE is also educating residents on hand washing and other preventative measures.

“They told us to wash our hands after chopping vegetables, also to wash our hands before cooking,” Jamanida says. “They advised us to keep our kids clean [and] to dispose of garbage so our kids don’t get sick.”

Jamanida at home in Cox's Bazar.

Who sacrifices the meal first? Women and girls.

Given that women and girls are typically responsible for finding water, washing and cooking, and taking care of unwell family members, they are especially at risk.

Around 51 percent of refugees in Cox’s Bazar are women and girls, and the majority – 459,000 — are children. Deepmala says it’s an “absolute no-brainer” to focus on interventions that support women and children. “The household burden is shared more by women and girls, so when people are not able to go out, the burden on the family to earn a livelihood is bigger. Who sacrifices the meal first? Women and girls.”

While refugees take preventative measures during the lockdown, they dream of being able to return home one day.

“If they return to our houses, our land, our property, we will then go back,” Jamanida says. “We miss our country.”

COVID-19 poses an unprecedented threat to the world’s most vulnerable people, including displaced women like Jamanida. See other women’s stories and Fight With CARE by signing the petition to prioritize the most vulnerable in a global COVID-19 response.

Video shot by Josh Estey.

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