COVID-19 Battles in Cox’s Bazaar Refugee Camps

Source: The UN Official Website

This article attempts to understand the International Human Rights Violations of the Refugees in Cox’s Bazar Camps and how can they be secured of their right to health.


Owing to the travel disruptions caused by the coronavirus, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), as of March 17, 2020, temporarily suspended refugee resettlement departures, leaving millions of refugees in temporary settlements.  Such closures have significantly impacted refugees by making them more vulnerable to health-care risks. This decision endangers the lives of thousands of refugees surviving the “dire and dangerous” conditions of the world’s largest refugee settlement, the Cox’s Bazaar Camp. The Camp hosts around 725,000 refugees, with only 10.7 square meters per person. Crowded conditions have caused the virus to race through the camps and risked thousands of refugee lives. Given the camp’s conditions, the threat of these cases and human rights abuses are alarming. This situation calls for an effective and inclusive approach to secure the refugees of their human right to health.

Through the Prism of International Human Rights Perspective

The constitution of the World Health Organisation recognises the right to health as a fundamental right and guarantees it to every individual without any form of discrimination. Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, guarantees every individual the right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health without any discrimination. Bangladesh has ratified this convention and therefore is obligated to uphold right to health as a human right of health as a human right of the refugees. Yet there is only a little indication of these rights being enjoyed by the refugees. The constitution of the World Health Organisation recognises the right to health as a fundamental right and guarantees it to every individual without any form of discrimination.The world health organisation has stated that understanding health as a human right creates a legal obligation on states to ensure access to timely, acceptable, and affordable health care of appropriate quality as well as to providing for the underlying determinants of health, such as safe and potable water, sanitation, food, housing, health-related information. Bangladesh, being a member of the World Health Organisation, and having accepted its constitution, has the obligation to secure the right to Health to it’s citizens. The ambit of this right is broad enough to include refugees as well.

Therefore, Bangladesh has to ensure the protection of human rights of the refugees and provide them with health-care services as provided to the citizens. Long-term neglect and inattention have aggravated the human rights of refugees and made them uniquely vulnerable in COVID-19 Crisis. The World Health Organisation released The Report on the health of refugees and migrants in the WHO European Region: no public health without refugee and migrant health (2018) where it urged the countries to implement policies that provide health-care to the refugees, irrespective of their legal status. Bangladesh lacks an express law regulating the administration and refugee rights. The absence of an administrative framework for refugees in Bangladesh has exposed the refugees to greater healthcare risks and endangered their lives.vHealth-care services like testing are scarce to refugees. Cox’s Bazaar settlement lacks proper hygiene and sanitation. Several reports mention the unavailability of water and soap in/outside latrines, preventing proper hand wash. This exposes the community members to safety and health hazards, making them more vulnerable to the COVID-19 risks.


Although the government of Bangladesh is responsible for protecting the refugees, however, given the economic crisis failed by the country, it might not have the financial means to do that at present. Considering this, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees should step in and take responsibility of providing healthcare to all refugees. The government of Bangladesh should focus on holistic development and adopt a human rights-based approach as supported by the Global Humanitarian Response Plan and Develop a detailed response in close collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The COVID-19 crisis represents an opportunity to address long-standing structural weaknesses and devise an inclusive crisis-resilient refugee management system by adopting a two-pronged counter-exclusion strategy – financial and socio-medical.

Countries like Bangladesh that host large refugee settlements should attempt to strengthen the health care facilities in the camp and with the help of international and national aid agencies, aim to provide clean water and sanitary conditions.  For decades, the refugees have struggled and have been treated as the Invisibles. The virus would have a catastrophic impact on the lives of the refugees. It is time to acknowledge their human rights and work towards ensuring them a safer environment.