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Skilled refugees are protecting their community

One mask at a time.

A small group of skilled refugee women are protecting their communities and providing for their families by creating face masks for volunteers and frontline workers in refugee camps in Cox’s Bangladesh.

Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh is home to more than 860,000 Rohingya refugees. Families live in close quarters to one another, making social distancing almost impossible.

A collective effort is vital to help combat the threat of COVID-19. Thanks to the support of an Australian donor, UNHCR has been able to support a new mask-making project in Bangladesh to help protect the Rohingya community.

A group of skilled refugee women are producing non-surgical cloth masks for those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19, as well as volunteers and frontline workers who are continuing their critical activities in the camps.

The Government of Bangladesh has declared face masks compulsory for all individuals while outside the home, and has encouraged the wearing of cloth masks for people where surgical masks are not available and where an individual is not a patient.

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Rohingya refugees practice physical distancing to help combat the spread of COVID-19 at a settlement in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. © UNHCR Bangladesh

The project began with a group of 20 women and a target of creating 32,000 masks that follow the Civil Surgeon approved design. To date, production has scaled up to engage 42 workers who have collaborated to make more than 37,000 masks.

Women and girls in refugee camps are highly vulnerable – particularly during a crisis – as they are often burdened with increased responsibilities, reducing their opportunities for education and employment.

The initiative not only helps protect the community, but it also helps women improve their skills and provide a stable income for their families.

Despite UNHCR's best efforts to prevent COVID-19 from reaching Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, there have been roughly six deaths and 60 positive cases so far.

The coronavirus pandemic is only the latest in a string of emergencies for the Rohingya community. Three years ago, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were forced to flee their homes due to extreme violence in Myanmar’s conflict-stricken Rakhine State.

Some travelled on foot enduring days of trekking across mountains, through jungles and treacherous waters, often with babies and small children in tow, to seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh. 

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To date, 42 workers have collaborated to make more than 37,000 masks. © UNHCR / Bangladesh

Three years on, the Kutupalong settlement in Bangladesh is now the largest and most densely populated refugee camp in the world.

Forced displacement, the global COVID-19 pandemic and the added threat of the annual monsoon season means Rohingya refugees are now more vulnerable than ever.

Thanks to the generous support of donors, UNHCR and humanitarian partners have been able to rapidly scale up activities to address these emerging challenges for both refugee and host communities. 

However, additional support is urgently needed for UNHCR to expand its assistance from immediate life-saving support towards addressing longer-term issues such education and protection.

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Today, more than 860,000 Rohingya refugees live in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, after fleeing torture and violence in Myanmar. ©UNHCR. A Dean

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