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Refugee Boats Stranded at Sea Show How COVID-19 Is Making Threatened Groups More Vulnerable

12 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Two fishing trawlers are crisscrossing the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, trying to find a country that will take in hundreds of Rohingya families fleeing Bangladesh’s refugee camps, who escaped ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. It’s unclear where they’ll end up: Malaysia has already turned away other boats of Rohingya refugees, fearing they might be carrying the novel coronavirus. And Bangladesh says it won’t take them back either, as the government battles its own rapidly rising number of COVID-19 cases.

The United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have all called for someone to take in the now-starving men, women and children, or at least allow them off the boat to get food and water after so many days at sea. They’ve appealed to nations’ humanity, and cited international law. Pia Oberoi, senior advisor on migration and human rights at the U.N. Human Rights regional office in Bangkok, says that at least one of the trawlers approached Malaysia and was turned away, and it’s not clear where they are now or where they are headed. “We’re calling on Bangladesh and Malaysia, as well as other coastal states in the region to find a solution to this,” she told TIME Tuesday. Some 500 people aboard both vessels are at risk, she said.

As COVID-19 continues to spread, governments across the globe are hunkering down, singularly focused on containing the virus and minimizing loss of life and economic damage. In the process, many of the world’s humanitarian crises and simmering conflicts have fallen out of the world headlines, but that doesn’t mean they’ve gone away. In fact, aid workers warn that COVID-19 is poised to super-charge existing ethnic and religious divides in some of the most conflict-wracked places on earth, and provides extremist groups an opening to exploit governments’ inabilities to contain the virus.

Humanitarian workers say some of the world’s most vulnerable communities are already being marginalized and targeted: religious minorities, who are often scapegoats in times of crises; and conflict-displaced refugees and impoverished migrants across Asia and the Middle East, seen as competing for ever-diminishing resources in the lower-income nations where governments are failing to care for their own people. Aid workers worry that if the virus takes hold in a particular minority community or refugee camp, fear could whip up existing animus against already unwelcome outsiders to genocide-level proportions.

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In an earlier era, the world might look to Washington to chart a path out of the chaos. But the Trump Administration, facing the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the world, has turned its gaze inward, clamping down on immigration in the name of protecting Americans’ health and jobs. From Syrians trapped by fighting around Idlib to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis displaced by ISIS still living in packed camps, to the ongoing plight of the Rohingya, communities in extremis are finding fewer advocates among high income nations with the political will or available capital to step in to ease their plight.

The U.S. has pledged more than $500 million to global emergency coronavirus aid, with similar amounts being given by other countries like Britain and Canada, but those figures are dwarfed by aid agencies’ new requests for funding. The U.N. has appealed globally for $2 billion and the Red Cross Red Crescent movement for $823 million. “We can actually only best protect all of us when everybody, including the most vulnerable populations, have access to health services, screening, and the preventative measures we all need,” Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams, head of global communications for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), tells TIME. The UNHCR regularly gets only half of what it needs to fund its budget, so had already been forced to limit services like healthcare in multiple conflict zones.

Bangladesh rescued another boat in mid-April that had drifted for weeks after failing to reach Malaysia, allowing almost 400 Rohingya to come ashore, but more than 70 had died while at sea that time, according to Oberoi. Kate White, COVID-19 Medical Manager for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), says many countries are simply focused on their own survival. “We’re in a situation where you have the potential for people to die at sea,” she says, referring to the Rohingya aboard the trawlers. “So much attention is going to other places that it will go unnoticed.”

The possibility of sectarian conflict getting worse due to COVID-19 is particularly rife in South Asia, says Akshaya Kumar, crisis advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “If you look specifically at India and Sri Lanka, there’s been a lot of vilification of Muslims writ large, by members of the ruling party… It’s now just getting worse.” In India, Muslims have already been targeted after dozens of cases were traced to a forum held in early March by Muslim missionary group Tablighi Jamaat, in defiance of social distancing rules. She said there have also been reports, decried by U.S. officials, of Christians and Hindus in Pakistan unable to access COVID-19 food aid being distributed there.

This rising chaos presents opportunity for extremist factions trying to overthrow those fragile governments by creating newly embittered, disenfranchised populations among which to recruit, or at least influence. “We are seeing a number of actors essentially leverage the pandemic or leverage the opportunities of the pandemic to advance their agendas,” including terrorist groups, armed militias and even criminal gangs, says Frances Brown, Democracy, Conflict and Governance Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In Lebanon, the Iranian-backed militia and political movement Hezbollah has stood up medical facilities, built two testing centers, and taken journalists along to document its volunteers distributing aid, outpacing the Lebanese government’s efforts, she says, citing a recent Carnegie report on COVID 19 in conflict zones. In Colombia, Brown has tracked reports of armed groups and death squads who she says are “basically taking advantage of the fact that the Colombian government is also distracted to murder land rights activists,” and in Mexico, the Sinaloa Cartel is handing out food and toilet paper in what it calls “Chapo packages”.

The so-called Islamic State also issued a call to arms on March 19, hailing COVID 19 as “The Crusaders’ Worst Nightmare,” and calling on followers to attack while Western governments are distracted, writes Sam Heller, International Crisis Group’s adviser on Non-State Armed Groups. ISIS followers have already responded with violence in Egypt, Niger and Afghanistan, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).

But the larger threat posed by ISIS, says Letta Tayler, Terrorism and Counterterrorism lead for Human Rights Watch, is that the group will successfully seize the opportunity created by COVID-19 to convince people that it’s more trustworthy than governments. The group has been smuggling aid into Syria’s sprawling Al-Hol refugee camp, to help the 70,000 mostly women and children detained by U.S. Kurdish allies there who had lived previously under ISIS control. “You’ve got masses of people in detention…who are fearful, in many cases don’t have enough food, they don’t have enough medicine, they feel abandoned by their governments. And along comes ISIS and says…we’re here to help you.”

Organizations like MSF and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are trying to anticipate where sectarian tensions and conflict are likeliest to blaze anew, and deploy some “fire breaks” in the form of health education for fragile populations, advice to governments and pre-positioning aid.

To head off potential flash points between governments and religious majority and minority communities, the ICRC is also reaching out to religious leader networks to try to proactively message against some of the stigmas being created by COVID-19, stressing, for instance, that one’s religion doesn’t determine one’s propensity to carry the virus, says Andrew Bartles-Smith, the ICRC’s regional advisor for humanitarian affairs.

The ICRC has already had to step in defuse growing sectarian tensions over burial practices related to the virus. In Sri Lanka, after two Muslims who died from COVID 19 were cremated, which is strictly forbidden in Islam, and was seen as an affront to the Muslim community by the Buddhist-majority government. “It’s not necessarily a religious thing — a stigma against another community,” says Bartles-Smith of such actions. “It’s just fear of the dead body.” Nevertheless, Muslims were outraged, and the ICRC has called for regional governments to find ways to both respect religious beliefs and safely handle the bodies, such as allowing ritual washing and placing them in plastic bags before burial.

Across multiple conflict zones, organizations like MSF are also educating people in refugee camps and informal outposts of internally displaced communities on how not to catch COVID 19, both to prevent the spread of the virus and to head off an outbreak among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh that could lead the public to label them as carriers, adding to pressure to eject them the country.

As with the battle against Ebola on the African continent, international aid groups are often the ones disenfranchised communities trust most, and better placed to get those lessons across than governments after years of neglect or outright targeting by the government. “If people don’t trust you, they won’t come when a family member is sick,” says MSF’s White. “I won’t necessarily…be able to build a rapport with them so that you can discuss what they can do to help protect themselves…. And it won’t help to stop or reduce the transmission of the disease.”

That trust issue may be why Myanmar authorities invited humanitarian organizations, including the ICRC, to step up COVID-related aid to often off-limits encampments in remote areas of Northern Rakhine and Chin states, to assist both Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhist populations displaced by fighting between the government and armed insurgents.

Stephan Sakalian, head of the ICRC delegation in Myanmar, calls it “a race against the clock,” or rather the deluges of the coming monsoon season, to bring water, food and basic medical supplies to roughly 75,000 people sheltering in over 130 makeshift camps or Buddhist monasteries. All the while, ongoing hostilities limit their access, Sakalian says. “It’s not like we can operate in a place where we just need to go. We need to be sure that we get the proper authorization, that it is safe for our team, and that we are not creating additional problems for the communities we try to help.”

A U.S. State Department official told TIME the U.S. is troubled by that “escalating violence in northern Rakhine and Chin States, where dozens have been killed and thousands have been displaced in recent months,” and “concerned that COVID-19 could impact internally displaced Rohingya and other vulnerable populations” throughout the region. The official, who spoke anonymously as a condition of commenting, said the U.S. also called on Myanmar to create conditions safe enough for the displaced to return, and it called on regional nations to honor commitments they’d made to never again abandon refugees and migrants as they had in 2015, when thousands were cast adrift in the same area by smugglers.

Kumar of Human Rights Watch called the Myanmar government’s invitation to humanitarian agencies a band-aid solution, likely aimed at impressing the International Court of Justice ahead of a June review of charges of genocide against Myanmar.

A press officer of Myanmar’s Permanent Mission to the U.N. denied that in an email to TIME Monday, writing that it “decided to step up efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and to grant enhanced access to international humanitarian partners, including ICRC” to support the government’s own aid efforts there. The official, who did not give his or her name, emailed: “All religious communities in Myanmar join their hands in unity in the fight against our common enemy of COVID-19,” adding that Buddhist monasteries, Christian churches, Islamic mosques and Hindu temples have turned their places of worship into emergency facility quarantine centers to fight COVID 19.

The continued fighting in the region ended up killing a WHO worker who was gunned down while driving a batch of COVID-19 tests from Rakhine State’s capital Sittwe to Yangon in a U.N. vehicle, underlining how in places like Myanmar, there are fates worse than catching the novel coronavirus.

“Depending upon where you are in the evolution of the pandemic…this might not necessarily be the community’s perception of their biggest health risk,” says MSF’s White. “One of the things that we’ve learned over many outbreaks, particularly Ebola, is that for many communities, it’s the least of their worries.”

That has kept those Rohingya refugees in neighboring Bangladesh from returning to Myanmar, taking their chance that they will end up adrift and unwanted in the Andaman Sea.

Please send tips, leads, and stories from the frontlines to virus@time.com.

Correction, April 29

The original version of this story misstated the body that is set to review charges of genocide against Myanmar. It is the International Court of Justice, not the International Criminal Court.

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