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Rohingya refugees face another relocation amid devastating fires, COVID outbreaks in camps

In another aspect of the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, Rohingya refugees — a Muslim minority group that first fled a bloody crackdown launched by the Myanmar military three years ago — have been forced to live in cramped refugee camps in Bangladesh. On top of battling COVID-19 and fires, they are now being asked to relocate to a flood prone island. NewsHour special correspondent Tania Rashid reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The ongoing crisis in Myanmar has had a devastating impact on one particular ethnic group, Rohingya refugees forced to flee to cramped camps in Bangladesh, battling the coronavirus and now being asked to relocate to a flood-prone island.

    "NewsHour" special correspondent Tania Rashid reports.

  • Tania Rashid:

    What were once homes, hospitals, and schools at the world's largest refugee camp burn to ash, as a massive fire rips through these makeshift settlements. Fifteen people were killed, 400 missing, and tens of thousands displaced.

    Three years ago, the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, fled a bloody military crackdown launched by the Myanmar military and police bordering Bangladesh. Mass killings, rapes, and arsons drove close to a million into these sprawling camps in Cox's Bazar.

    In a report published in 2019, U.N. investigators warned of genocidal intent. The Myanmar army denies that, and claims, it only acted against insurgent groups who attacked the police. But now these fires have uprooted these Rohingyas' lives again.

    Bangladesh authorities and aid agencies have been providing emergency assistance to over 45,000 homeless refugees. Since December, the Bangladeshi government has started moving more than 13,000 refugees from the overcrowded camps to Bhasan Char, a remote island in the Bay of Bengal.

    According to our local sources, the Bangladesh government has offered those affected by the fires help with relocating there now. We visited the low-lying plain in early 2017, back when it was just an undeveloped strip of land. Experts on climate change deemed the land mass unlivable. But the government said it would be better than the overcrowded camps.

    In a promo video last year, the Bangladeshi government claimed to have constructed dams, cyclone shelters, hospitals, mosques, and schools to house 100,000 Rohingyas under safe conditions.

    Sah-yed Noor said he would consider moving to the island to escape the poor living conditions inside the camps.

  • Sah-yed Noor (through translator):

    I think that Bhasan Char can be better from camp, because every apartment is made with brick.

  • Tania Rashid:

    His 16-year-old niece, Fowzia (ph), was sent to Bhasan Char last year by the Bangladeshi navy after being stranded at sea for months when she tried to flee to Malaysia.

    After several attempts to make contact with her, he gets her on the phone to check on her situation. He's been concerned about her safety. She said she's not feeling well and misses her family and wants to go home.

    After hearing from Fowzia, Sah-yed said he would only agree to relocate to Bhasan Char with his family, so they can be reunited together.

    These fires aren't the first ones to happen here. There were two fires in the month of January, according to news reports. It is unclear why the fires keep happening. But, as the Bangladesh government continues its investigations into the cause of the fires, the Rohingya continue to live in crammed, unsanitary living conditions, making them some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

    Bangladesh has administered over three million doses of the first vaccine to its citizens, and has initiated plans to include the Rohingyas in its national vaccination drive. But so far, none have been vaccinated. For now, the strict lockdown imposed by the government last year continues, with an 80 percent decrease of humanitarian aid staff on the ground.

    Essential services, including food and medical supplies, have been allowed into the camps through specially arranged checkpoints organized by the Bangladesh army. The U.N. Refugee Agency has teamed up with the Bangladesh government to train 1,500 community health workers inside the camps to raise awareness about the virus.

    Dr. Fahadin Aktar works in early responsive care at the camp.

  • Dr. Fahadin Aktar (through translator):

    Here, first, we check their temperature. We set up compulsory hand washing points, and all people must wash their hands and maintain proper social distancing.

    Before, five people sat together, but now, in one seat, two people sit together with a barrier for social distancing. And we make sure all patients wear masks.

  • Tania Rashid:

    Despite the efforts, Dr. Aktar says he's seen a sharp decline in the numbers of Rohingya patients. Many are scared to go to the hospital.

  • Fahadin Aktar (through translator):

    Those with suspected symptoms are tested and quarantined. This has sparked fear among the Rohingya, concerned that they could be sent somewhere else, separate from their families, if they share their symptoms.

  • Tania Rashid:

    The official numbers say there have been only 400 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 10 related deaths at the camp. Bangladesh authorities insist cases at the camps are increasing at a much slower rate than global trends due to the enforced lockdown.

    But the longing to go back home remains for many of these refugees, despite the ongoing military coup back in Myanmar. For weeks, tens of thousands of peaceful protesters have taken to the streets of major cities, protesting the military's seized power.

    In response, the police are cracking down violently, with the bloodiest days this past weekend. Many Rohingya activists we spoke with are hoping their support for the movement in Myanmar will be a turning point in their on-going fight for justice, despite the lack of support from ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who defended the military against accusations of genocide in The Hague in 2019.

    But the aftermath of the recent fires have taken their lives for a drastic turn, as the place they sought refuge has put them in limbo yet again.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Tania Rashid.

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