The Bangladeshi government has shutdown internet and phone connections at Rohingya refugee camps, obstructing humanitarian groups from addressing the threat of coronavirus outbreak and risking the health and lives of over a million people, including nearly 900,000 refugees in Cox’s Bazar and the Bangladeshi host community.
Lives are at stake as the shutdown is hindering aid groups’ ability to provide emergency health services and rapidly coordinate essential preventive measures, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
“The Bangladesh government is in a race against the clock to contain the spread of coronavirus, including in the Rohingya refugee camps, and can’t afford to waste precious time with harmful policies,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Authorities should lift the internet shutdown, which is obstructing crucial information about symptoms and prevention, or end up risking the lives of refugees, host communities, and healthcare workers.”
Internet access in the camps has been shut down since September 2019, following a directive from the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission describing the decision as a security measure.
Aid workers and community leaders rely on WhatsApp and other internet-based communication tools to coordinate emergency services and share important information in the camps. A community health volunteer said their group had used WhatsApp to connect medical supporters, but “[now]we cannot connect to provide our services.”
The United Nations human rights office said in a March 2020 statement that “especially at a time of emergency, when access to information is of critical importance, broad restrictions on access to the internet cannot be justified on public order or national security grounds,” and called for governments to “refrain from blocking internet access”.
While authorities claim that there has been no community COVID-19 transmission in the refugee camps or surrounding communities, medical experts in Bangladesh say that not enough people have been tested to draw that conclusion.
The Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), the national institute in charge of Bangladesh’s COVID-19 response, has so far only tested 920 people among a population of nearly 170 million.
Not only is the Bangladesh government inadequately prepared to confront the pandemic’s spread, Rohingya refugees are at added risk due to overcrowded camps, vulnerability to landslides and flooding exacerbated by restrictions on freedom of movement, and lack of access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene.
Aid workers said government officials specifically advised them against running any information campaigns about COVID-19 for fear of creating panic. Rohingya youth volunteers said Bangladesh officials in charge of camps refused requests to run information campaigns.
One Rohingya woman, 52, said that no one had come to tell her community about the virus. She had only heard from religious leaders that she should pray: “We are praying together in family groups of 10 or 12 people together. That’s all we know, nobody told us anything more.”
Under Bangladesh law, Rohingya are not legally allowed to have SIM cards, and in September 2019, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission directed mobile phone carrier companies to stop selling to Rohingya.
Since September 2019, authorities have confiscated over 12,000 phone cards from Rohingya refugees. For those who still have SIM cards, the internet shutdown has made their devices effectively useless. (Source: HRW)