The Bangladesh government’s internet blackout and phone restrictions at Rohingya refugee camps are obstructing humanitarian groups from addressing the COVID-19 threat, Human Rights Watch said today. 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 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. Though the authorities described the decision as a security measure, this broad restriction on communication was neither necessary nor proportionate, both of which are required under international human rights law.
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. The shutdown prevents effective dissemination of coronavirus information as well as impeding aid workers’ ability to conduct “contact tracing” to contain transmission of the virus. A community health volunteer said their group had used WhatsApp to connect medical supporters, but “[now] we cannot connect to provide our services.”