YANGON: Myanmar’s health authorities say they are increasing efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic after several Rohingya tested positive for the disease.
As of Tuesday, there were 262 infections in Myanmar, with six reported deaths.
Residents in Muangdaw, the westernmost town near the Bangladeshi border, said non-compliance with preventive measures and a failure to report infections had caused the problem.
“With lax enforcement of COVID-19 rules, things were normal here until the first patient was found in Maungdaw,” said Abdullah, a Rohingya pharmacy owner in Maungdaw.
He added that he and other residents in the area would “hardly wear a mask or take precautions.”
On June 4 the Ministry of Health and Sports reported infection in Maungdaw, bringing the number of imported cases to six as of Tuesday.
Out of the six, four cases were detected in Maungdaw, with the remaining two in Buthidaung town.
According to Wai Tun, an administrator of the Maungdaw township, the four patients had illegally returned from neighboring Bangladesh.
“The first patient was a 38-year-old Muslim man from a five-person family who returned to Maungdaw from the Thangkhali camp in Cox’s Bazar on May 30,”.
He added that the second man was a 25-year-old Hindu, who had been working in Bangladesh and had returned to his family in the Kyein Chaung village of Maungdaw on June 3 through an illegal route.
The third and fourth patients were a Rohingya woman, 46, and a Rohingya man, 32, who both crossed the border illegally on May 26 to visit relatives taking shelter in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar.
“They re-entered Muangdaw on June 3,” Wai Tun said.
According to officials in the township’s administrative office, another group of eight Rohingya Muslims was taken to a quarantine center in Maungdaw on June 5 after they returned to Buthidaung from Bangladesh via an illegal route.
Tun Aung Thein, a Buthidaung lawmaker, said illegal crossings were frequent despite a border guard presence.
“We are afraid illegal crossings lead to the spread of COVID-19 in the area,” he said.
He added that more than 30 people who came into contact with the infected patients had been transferred to a quarantine center.
Thein said the illegal movements occurred because of a lack of enforcement by authorities, despite a ban on border crossings imposed by Myanmar in March.
Myint Shwe, a Rohingya community leader in Buthidaung, agrees.
“If legal action was taken against those who illegally crossed the border, no one would dare to use illegal routes,” he said, adding that authorities in Myanmar welcomed the return of refugees through illegal routes so that they could “blame Bangladesh,” after repeated failure of repatriation efforts.
A leading human rights group said Myanmar had taken harsh actions against Rohingya illegally crossing into the Rakhine State, including arrests, torture, and transferring them to camps for displaced persons.
“So if they are not arresting these informal returnees now, then this is a new policy,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
Robertson questioned the motives of the Myanmar government.
“I suspect local officials may be getting big bribes to go along with the scheme, with higher-ups also getting a piece of the action,” he told state media.
Not a single refugee returned to the Rakhine state despite a bilateral deal signed between Myanmar and Bangladesh in November 2017 to repatriate more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims. The refugees fled to Bangladesh to escape Myanmar’s brutal crackdown in 2017.
Myanmar has blamed Bangladesh for the failure to repatriate the Rohingya.
In November last year, Zaw Htay, spokesperson for the Myanmar president office, said that the repatriation plan would fail to succeed without cooperation from the Bangladeshi government.
“As long as Bangladesh fails to cooperate, this problem will continue to exist,” he told a press conference in the political capital, Nay Pyi Taw.
In April this year, Myanmar said that more than 600 Rohingya had voluntarily returned from Bangladesh.
Robertson said the refugees remain in a precarious position.
“Rohingya who returned informally are likely not in a position to claim their rights such as full citizenship, freedom of movement, and access to health and education. What the Myanmar government doesn’t want is Rohingya returning home with any rights guaranteed to them,” he said.