Blog Global Health Center Health Equity

Ongoing Rohingya health crisis & student initiative to improve refugee health information access

Written by Mahija Ginjupalli, undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, BSA Neuroscience, and the Amelia Brown Johnson Memorial Scholar in the 2021 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

One of the most persecuted ethnic populations in the world, the Rohingya are a Muslim minority group formerly based in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Decades of discrimination by the Myanmar government climaxed with a violent campaign against the Rohingya population in 2017, leading to the exodus of 1.3 million refugees into Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. This has left the Rohingya in a limbo between Myanmar, a state denying them citizenship, and Bangladesh, the location of their current refuge. Given this context of the Rohingya’s painful past and indeterminate future, the educational and health disparities within this community are dire. The Health and Human Rights Journal reported that 76% of Rohingya adults in Cox’s Bazar have had no previous schooling. Prior to 2017, the population faced severe educational restrictions in Myanmar, with the government banning Rohingya teachers from working and non-Rohingya educators refusing to teach Rohingya students.

A view of Balukhali Rohingya refugee camp. Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera

Restricted educational access has left this population struggling with high illiteracy rates while, according to the Humanitarian Policy Group, insufficient Rohingya-language information on critical health behavior practices undermines Rohingya wellbeing. A Johns Hopkins University physician team working in Cox’s Bazar emphasized the importance of improving health literacy among the refugees, indicating that the lack of quality healthcare infrastructure only amplifies the need for preventive medicine and health education. Indeed, low Rohingya health literacy both increases susceptibility to preventable diseases and reduces their ability to benefit from existing services. This adds to the acute need for accessible health education interventions through on-ground nonprofit organizations.

When a team of students and I learned about this ongoing human rights crisis a year ago, we connected with faculty at our university to learn more. These conversations led to discussions with nonprofits actively working in the camps regarding how a lack of accessible health information due in part to language and literacy barriers has led to the widespread presence of preventable health risks in the camps. With an impetus to remove obstacles to equitable information, we are currently collaborating with project partners to conduct an intervention involving the development and distribution of need-specific, community-driven health education videos to the Rohingya refugee population in Bangladesh. These videos have a focus on topics indicated as being important by on-ground humanitarian workers and are guided by interviews conducted with local and on-ground Rohingya community members. Through this initiative, we hope to ultimately contribute to the advancement of Rohingya health empowerment and equity.

*Ms. Ginjupalli is a participant in the 2021 Summer Research Program Public & Global Health Track