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Bangladesh: 'Restrictions on Rohingya raise virus risk'

50 rights groups urge Bangladesh government to end limitations on movement, internet, mobile use

Md. Kamruzzaman   | 02.04.2020
Bangladesh: 'Restrictions on Rohingya raise virus risk'

DHAKA, Bangladesh

Dozens of international rights groups have called on Bangladesh to lift restrictions imposed on the persecuted Rohingya community living in the Cox’s Bazar refugee settlement.

In a letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, 50 rights organizations said the limitations on movement and internet and mobile coverage could have grave consequences.

“We write to urge you to lift ongoing mobile internet restrictions and halt the construction of barbed wire fencing around the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar District,” read the joint appeal by organizations, including Human Rights Watch and several Rohingya diaspora groups.

Referring to the COVID-19 pandemic, they said the restrictions put refugees, host communities, and aid workers at high risk.

Since September 2019, Bangladeshi authorities have prevented Rohingya refugees from obtaining mobile SIM cards, while operators have been told to restrict internet coverage in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.

The letter said more than 12,000 SIM cards have been taken from refugees since September and, in some instances, authorities have prohibited the use of mobile phones altogether.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads to Bangladesh, unrestricted access to information via mobile and internet communications is crucial for slowing the transmission of the disease and saving the lives of refugees, humanitarian workers, and the general population of Bangladesh,” the groups warned.

Bangladesh has 56 confirmed COVID-19 cases and six deaths so far, while 25 people have recovered, according to data compiled by the U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

“Without access to mobile and internet communications, aid workers and others will be forced to deliver critical health information in person, heightening their risk of exposure to COVID-19 and slowing the effectiveness of the response.”

The rights organizations also criticized Bangladesh’s move to install fences and guard towers around Rohingya refugee camps, which started in November last year.

“Bangladesh risks mirroring the behavior of Myanmar authorities, who presently confine more than 125,000 Rohingya to more than 20 internment camps in five townships of Rakhine State.”

They said Bangladesh “should work in close collaboration with international humanitarian organizations and Rohingya-led groups to disseminate accurate and timely information on COVID-19” to protect Rohingya and the host communities.

But, speaking to Anadolu Agency, Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal brushed aside concerns raised by the rights groups.

“Internet access remains open, but it is limited to prevent misuse by certain unscrupulous elements,” he said.

He also defended the government’s decision to install barbed wire fences around the refugee settlements.

“Even now, some of them [Rohingya people] are secretly going to Myanmar because they are involved in narcotics trafficking. Terrorist groups are also trying to recruit the Rohingya.”

After surfacing in Wuhan, China last December, the novel coronavirus has spread to at least 180 countries and regions.

The global death toll from COVID-19 has surpassed 48,500, with over 956,500 cases confirmed worldwide, according to U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University. More than 202,700 have recovered from the infection so far.

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