Internet ban in Bangladesh's Rohingya camps will cost lives during Covid-19 pandemic, HRW warns

Internet ban in Bangladesh's Rohingya camps will cost lives during Covid-19 pandemic, HRW warns
The Bangladeshi government must reinstate internet and mobile access in Rohingya camps in order to help coordinate an adequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, HRW says.
3 min read
27 March, 2020
Bangladesh's government’ imposes an internet blackout and phone restrictions in Rohingya refugee camps [Getty]
Internet blackouts and phone restrictions imposed on Bangladesh's camps for Rohingya refugees are putting millions of lives at risk by impeding the coordination of emergency health services and preventative measures against the novel coronavirus, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned on Friday.

The group pointed out that the restrictions severely limit humanitarian groups’ ability to respond to Covid-19 pandemic in the camps that house over a million Rohingya refugees who fled ethnic cleansing in neighbouring Myanmar.

“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. 

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“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,” he added.

Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission shut down ordered web access in the camps to be shut down in September 2019 as a “security measure”, however rights groups say the extreme measure was “neither necessary nor proportionate” to any threat.

HRW pointed out that aid workers and community leaders rely on messaging services such as WhatsApp to coordinate emergency services as well as distribute vital health and safety information in the camps.

Aid workers have also said that “contact tracing” through these apps would help them follow and contain the virus’ transmission. 

Official figures of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Bangladesh stand at 48, with five deaths, however only 920 people have been tested, with testing capacity as well as oxygen, respirators, and key emergency equipment limited to Dhaka. 

Authorities have claimed there has been no spread within refugee camps, but medical experts say not enough testing has been carried out to reach that conclusion.

Furthermore, the overcrowded camps lack access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities, while restrictions on refugees’ movement means they are at added risk of landslides and flooding.

As an alternative to internet communication, the government has asked Rohingya community leaders to spread awareness of basic hygiene door to door. However the leaders are often elders and therefore at high risk of the virus, and face-to-face communication is both inefficient for the scale of the pandemic, and will facilitate the virus’ spread.

“The Rohingya refugee camps are a tinderbox for the coronavirus pandemic,” Adams said. “Authorities should lift the internet ban immediately and ensure that accurate information on the virus and its prevention is urgently made accessible to all.”

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