UN, Rights Watchdog Want Internet Restored at Rohingya Camps

The US on Friday urged Bangladesh to eliminate a web blackout at Rohingya camps through the COVID-19 pandemic, while People Rights Watch said the federal government was risking the lives of refugees by not lifting restrictions on their communications.

More than 1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, including 740,000 who fled a brutal military offensive in Rakhine express in August 2017, are sheltering in crowded camps and settlements in southeastern Bangladesh.

“Communication is paramount to the timely and effective management of the situation, mobile data marketing communications restrictions in the Rohingya refugee camps should be lifted,” Louise Donovan, a spokeswoman for the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online reports service, on Friday.

“Humanitarian companions are advocating to the government to re-establish internet connectivity within the camps, to ensure that all refugees have sufficient usage of information, also to enable communication between associates. Life-saving health interventions require rapid and effective communication,” Donovan said.

Citing national security and a need to keep law and order, the federal government in September 2019 purchased cellular phone operators to prevent access to the internet to the Rohingya camps. The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission also asked providers to avoid providing SIM cards to the Rohingya.

“The Bangladesh government is at a race contrary to 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,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a news release on Thursday.

“Authorities should lift up the internet shutdown, which is obstructing crucial information about symptoms and prevention, or wrap up risking the lives of refugees, host communities and health care workers.”

On March 19, the United Nations, in a joint affirmation with the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights as well as the business for Security and Cooperation in Europe, urged governments worldwide to refrain from blocking access to the internet during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Especially at the same time of emergency, when usage of information is of critical importance, broad restrictions on usage of the internet can’t be justified on public order or national security grounds,” the groups said.

In Bangladesh on Friday, a authorities official responded that no decision have been made on the internet blackout at the camps.

“The problem of restoring internet facilities in Rohingya camps has yet to be discussed,” Telecom Minister Mustafa Jabber told BenarNews, adding his ministry wouldn’t normally make that decision on its own.

“We’d implement it after getting directives from Home, Foreign and Disaster and Alleviation ministries. Up to now, we have not received any such directives,” he said.

‘We know little about the virus’

HRW said federal officials had advised aid personnel against releasing information about COVID-19 for concern with creating stress. Rohingya youth volunteers said Bangladesh officials responsible for camps acquired refused requests to permit information campaigns.

“Instead of avoiding anxiety, the lack of appropriate information is adding to the get spread around of misinformation about the condition,” the global rights watchdog said.

A leader at the Kutupalong camp said the pandemic had panicked the Rohingya in his and other camps.

“But we realize little about the virus. We’re able to have known more if there have been internet facilities,” camp leader Mohammad Nur told BenarNews, adding that Rohingya were hoping to keep social distancing.

No Rohingya have been diagnosed as positive for COVID-19, according to Mohammad Shamsu Douza, additional commissioner of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission.

“However, four people who originated from India and one from Australia have been put in quarantine at a UNHCR transit camp and hospital,” he told BenarNews. Nothing have been identified as having the coronavirus.

Despite the internet blackout and restrictions on cellular phone devices in the camps, information about how exactly people can protect themselves from the virus has been disseminated through radio places, videos, posters, leaflets and messages in the Bengali, Burmese and Rohingya languages, according to Donovan of UNHCR.

Imams and other community leaders are also helping spread the term, Donovan said.

“The humanitarian community is taking all preventive and protective measures to mitigate the potential risks of COVID-19 for individuals we serve, as well as our very own teams, while also making certain essential activities and facilities, to the extent possible, must continue,” the U.N. official told BenarNews via email.

The upgrading of hygiene advertising, staff training for infection prevention and control, and the mapping of isolation facilities are among measures that aid agencies and communities are taking to safeguard the residents of the crowded refugee camps from COVID-19, she said.

Meanwhile in the administrative centre Dhaka on Friday, Bangladesh officials reported four new coronavirus situations at the country wide level, bringing the full total number of instances to 48. Bangladesh has also documented five deaths from COVID-19.

Globally, more than 25,400 folks have died with least 566,000 have been infected, based on the latest data published by disease experts at Johns Hopkins University in america.