There are nearly one million Rohingya refugees living in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in two registered and 32 unregistered camps, alongside impoverished host communities. This article explores the direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19 containment policies put in place by the Government of Bangladesh, as well as the changing context due to COVID-19, on the lives of Rohingya adolescents.
The analysis is based on data collected from a sample of 692 Rohingya adolescents living in camps and 1,069 Bangladeshi adolescents living in host communities who were surveyed by telephone from May to June 2020. The sample is derived from a baseline of 1,071 Rohingya adolescents and 1,209 Bangladeshi adolescents who were surveyed from March to August 2019 as part of the Cox’s Bazar Panel Survey (CBPS), which surveyed a representative sample of Rohingya and host community households within 60 km of refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar. Additionally, 30 older adolescents participated in in-depth qualitative telephone interviews. Key informant interviews were also conducted with staff in the camps to document the containment measures put in place by government, United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in response to the ongoing pandemic.
- The police strictly enforced stay-at-home orders and mandatory facemasks during lockdown, including by force. 38 percent of adolescents in camps stayed at home in the seven days prior to the survey, with girls significantly more likely to do so than boys (68 percent versus 15 percent). Adolescents believed that lockdown policies were justified (94 percent of older adolescents thought that shops should close, and 84 percent thought that religious gatherings should be forbidden).
- Some adolescents do not have reliable and accessible information about COVID-19. The most common sources of information on COVID-19 in the camps include: information campaigns (30 percent of adolescents); friends and neighbors (25 percent); and NGOs (22 percent). With containment measures in place, Rohingya adolescents have reduced access to television (which men and boys used to watch in local shops or tea stalls) and reduced access to social media (due to a prolonged Internet shutdown). Limited access to information on COVID-19 may contribute to misinformation about the disease in the camps.
- Self-reported health among Rohingya adolescents has deteriorated. 10 percent of the sample (9 percent Rohingya and 10 percent Bangladeshi) reported that their health had deteriorated since COVID-19, with boys nearly twice as likely to report this as girls (12 percent and 7 percent respectively). Qualitative data suggests that Rohingya adolescents may be reluctant to visit health centers and hospitals for non-COVID-19 illnesses because they fear contracting COVID-19 in these settings, with negative consequences for their health.
- Food insecurity is the most concerning impact of COVID-19 in both Rohingya and host households. Interviewees reported decreased availability of food, due to reduced rations, reduced income from selling rations, and reduced food purchases. 21 percent of adolescents reported feeling hungrier during the pandemic (23 percent of Bangladeshi and 18 percent of Rohingya adolescents). Girls are more likely to report hunger than boys (22 percent versus 14 percent in the camps, 27 percent versus 18 percent in host communities). 58 percent of Rohingya households reported reducing food served to children. On average, households have experienced at least one of three types of extreme food insecurity in the past four weeks (half of the households reported not having food because of a lack of resources, 17 percent reported that at least one household member went to sleep at night hungry, and 4 percent reported that a household member went a whole day and night without eating anything at all).
- The decision to define education as a non-essential activity exacerbated inequitable access to education in the camps. 41 percent of adolescents in the camp were enrolled in some kind of schooling before COVID-19 (53 percent of boys and 29 percent of girls). After COVID-19, 7 percent of boys and less than one percent of girls were enrolled in some kind of schooling. Less than one percent of adolescents enrolled in informal school were able to use the Internet or media to continue learning during the pandemic. School closures have impacted the amount of time adolescents spend on household chores and childcare, both in the camps and in host communities; 93 percent of adolescents reported an increase in time spent on chores and childcare.
- Rohingya adolescents are also more likely to experience violence from police and military related to the pandemic. In camps, boys report concerns around escalation of police and military violence when enforcing lockdown measures (38 percent of boys versus 22 percent of girls).
- The pandemic appears to have increased gender-based violence. Across locations, 8 percent of adolescents reported an increase in gender-based violence during the pandemic.
- The pandemic has substantially reduced opportunities for paid work. Across the Bangladeshi and Rohingya samples, 10 percent of adolescents were engaged in paid work prior to COVID-19, with boys four times more likely to be working than girls (17 percent versus 4 percent). However, paid work has either stopped or decreased for 85 percent of the working sample, with 57 percent of Bangladeshi adolescents reporting not having restarted work compared to 75 percent of Rohingya adolescents. 2 percent of the sample had engaged in new work since the onset of the pandemic.
- Adverse impacts of the pandemic compound preexisting marginalization and hamper the future trajectories of Rohingya adolescents. Adverse impacts affecting adolescents need to be addressed to avert the risks of increased child marriage, educational marginalization, poverty and gender discrimination, which have long-lasting, intergenerational impacts. In particular, the increased food insecurity must be addressed urgently, by scaling up food support in the camps. Additionally, in light of fewer educational and training opportunities, it is even more critical that education sector humanitarian partners renew efforts to initiate the Myanmar curriculum pilot for grades 6–9 (paused due to COVID-19), so that Rohingya students can obtain educational certification for their schooling.