After a nearly year-long blackout, Bangladesh restored internet access in Rohingya refugee camps and surrounding communities on Friday, saying pressure from international groups led to the change.
Authorities cited national security as the reason when it imposed the ban on internet services at the 34 refugee camps in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district on Sept. 03, 2019.
The blockage left Bangladeshis who live in communities that surround the camps in the border region without internet service as well.
“Many local and foreign organizations insisted on lifting the ban, and we listened to them,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
Mohammad Illiyas, secretary of the Arakan Rohingya National Union, thanked the government for lifting the ban.
“It seems, we have received a new ray of hope. We were thrown into the ‘Dark Age’ and now we get back to normalcy,” Illiyas told Benar News.
“Now, our children can enrol in online classes. They will spend some quality time here in the camps and life will be easier.”
More than 740,000 of about 1 million Rohingya in the Cox’s Bazar camps had fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine state amid a brutal military crackdown that began on Aug. 25, 2017.
Bangladesh officials announced the 2019 blackout a week after about 200,000 Rohingya rallied at the Kutupalong camp to mark the second anniversary of the beginning of the mass exodus.
At the same time as the ban was implemented, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) asked mobile phone providers to stop selling cellphone SIM cards to Rohingya, according to Mohamad Johurul Haque, the agency’s chairman.
“The Rohingya are not entitled to use Bangladeshi SIM cards. But they have been using a huge number of mobile SIM cards in and around the camps,” he told BenarNews at the time, stipulating that only people with passports or national ID cards were allowed to have mobile phones in Bangladesh.
Friday’s announcement did not affect Rohingya access to SIM cards. Khan, the minister, said the refugees found a way around the ban by getting the cards from and using internet networks in nearby Myanmar.
“[T]he locals were suffering,” he said of the internet ban.
Since the ban was instituted, local and international activists and officials, including Sam Brownback, the U.S. State Department’s ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom, have called for internet restoration.
In April, 25 Bangladeshi activists called on the government to lift the ban to spread information about the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Daily Star newspaper.
Even early this week, influential Western NGOs were clamouring for the government to restore access to mobile internet communications in the camps.
Among other reasons, they said this was needed to help children take part in remote learning as well as to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Rohingya population during the COVID-19 outbreak.
One of the groups, the International Rescue Committee, published a report Monday calling for restoration of internet services “to ensure all refugees have consistent access to speedy internet services across all camps in Cox’s Bazar so that children can learn.” (Source: RFA)