World, Asia - Pacific

Bangladesh's internet ban risks Rohingya: Rights body

Internet available but with limited scale to restrain possible misuse by terrorists, says home minister

Md. Kamruzzaman   | 27.03.2020
Bangladesh's internet ban risks Rohingya: Rights body

DHAKA, Bangladesh

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has slammed Bangladesh for internet blackout and phone restrictions at Rohingya refugee camps in country’s southern district of Cox’s Bazar despite worldwide spread of coronavirus.

“The shutdown is risking the health and lives of over a million people, including nearly 900,000 refugees in Cox’s Bazar and the Bangladeshi host community by hindering aid groups’ ability to provide emergency health services and rapidly coordinate essential preventive measures,” the international rights watchdog said in a statement late Thursday.

Referring to the dependency of aid workers and community leaders on WhatsApp messaging service and other internet-based communication tools to coordinate emergency services, the statement added: “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.”

The coronavirus known as COVID-19 has so far claimed at least five lives in Bangladesh, while 48 cases were reported.

Of the new infected are two medical doctors, Meerjady Sabrina Flora, the director of Bangladesh’s Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), said at a media briefing on Friday.

As parts of measures to stem the spread of the virus, Bangladesh has imposed countrywide lockdown, banning all sorts of gatherings and urging people not to go out of their homes, except for emergency needs.

Since March 26, Bangladesh has also been executing lockdown in country’s Rohingya refugee camps where at least 1.2 million members of the persecuted community are living now.

To contain the spread of coronavirus in accordance with World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, the Bangladesh government has directed those exhibiting symptoms to self-isolate and to call the IEDCR hotline.

“[But] under the internet blackout, a ban on mobile SIM cards for the [Rohingya] refugees, and with little to no mobile phone reception in the camps, it is nearly impossible for refugees to call the number,” HRW warned.

The country’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, however, brushed aside the allegations and said: “We have kept open the internet but with limited scale so that wicked people are not able to misuse it.”

“Still now some of them [Rohingya] go to Myanmar secretly and are involved with narcotic trade. Terrorist groups are also trying to prompt Rohingya,” he said without elaborating the issue.

Citing to the overall situation of Rohingya camps he added that there is no restriction and no lockdown in real sense. “We are actually helping them [by controlling the internet speed]”.

Referring to the ground scenario the minster said: “Some of them [Rohingya] has managed one kind of special mobile SIM cards from Myanmar. We have said them to use our SIM but in a limited scale.”

“NGO workers are frequently working there [camps] without any interruption, Rohingya people are using mobile randomly. We are just trying to ensure curbing narcotic trade and terrorist activities,” Kamal said.

The HRW, however, urged the government to pay heed to the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic spread on priority basis.

“Authorities should […] ensure that accurate information on the virus and its prevention is urgently made accessible to all [Rohingya in camps],” said Brad Adams, the head of HRW Asia.

After first appearing in Wuhan, China, last December, the novel coronavirus has spread to at least 175 countries and territories, according to data compiled by the U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

The data shows more than 537,800 cases have been reported worldwide since last December, with the death toll above 24,100 and over 123,300 recoveries.

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