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Rohingya refugees wait at a crowded relief distribution point at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, March 24, 2020.  © 2020 SUZAUDDIN RUBEL/AFP via Getty Images

(New York) – 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.”

The United Nations human rights office said in a March 2020 statement that “especially at a time of emergency, when access to information is of critical importance, broad restrictions on access to the internet cannot be justified on public order or national security grounds,” and called for governments to “refrain from blocking internet access” during the COVID-19 pandemic and, where internet has already been blocked, to prioritize ensuring “immediate access to the fastest and broadest possible internet service.”

While authorities claim that there has been no community COVID-19 transmission in the refugee camps or surrounding communities, medical experts in Bangladesh say that not enough people have been tested to draw that conclusion. The Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), the national institute in charge of Bangladesh’s COVID-19 response, has so far only tested 920 people among a population of nearly 170 million. There is currently no testing capacity outside of Dhaka. Oxygen, respirators, and other key emergency equipment are in short supply, particularly outside of the capital.

Not only is the Bangladesh government inadequately prepared to confront the pandemic’s spread, Rohingya refugees are at added risk due to overcrowded camps, vulnerability to landslides and flooding exacerbated by restrictions on freedom of movement, and lack of access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene.

Aid workers said government officials specifically advised them against running any information campaigns about COVID-19 for fear of creating panic. Rohingya youth volunteers said Bangladesh officials in charge of camps refused requests to run information campaigns. Instead of preventing anxiety, the lack of accurate information is contributing to the spread of misinformation about the disease, Human Rights Watch said.

One Rohingya woman, 52, said that no one had come to tell her community about the virus. She had only heard from religious leaders that she should pray: “We are praying together in family groups of 10 or 12 people together. That’s all we know, nobody told us anything more.”

Local health experts told Human Rights Watch that there are no ventilator machines in Cox’s Bazar and no capacity for intensive medical care in the camps. While the government has said that the Rohingya will be given access to government medical facilities in Cox’s Bazar if needed, it is unclear what criteria will be used to qualify for this access, how they will be transported, if transportation will be free of charge, or where people will be sent if already limited hospitals are at capacity.

To contain the spread of coronavirus in accordance with World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, the government has directed those exhibiting symptoms to self-isolate and to call the IECDR hotline. However, under the internet blackout, a ban on mobile SIM cards for the refugees, and with little to no mobile phone reception in the camps, it is nearly impossible for refugees to call the number.

Under Bangladesh law, Rohingya are not legally allowed to have SIM cards, and in September 2019, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission directed mobile phone carrier companies to stop selling to Rohingya. Since September 2019, authorities have confiscated over 12,000 phone cards from Rohingya refugees. For those who still have SIM cards, the internet shutdown has made their devices effectively useless.

Without access to the national hotline, Rohingya must walk through the crowded camps to access health centers, risking community transmission. Aid workers also need to use the hotline to organize transportation for possible COVID-19 patients to go to health centers with capacity.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said that refugees exhibiting coronavirus symptoms will be referred to an isolation facility. Community health volunteers are crucial for quickly identifying these cases, but they are significantly impeded by the internet ban.

One refugee journalist said that before the shutdown he could gather information from other camps and could communicate updates to aid workers and UN officials. But now, “foreigners cannot contact me, and I also cannot provide them information.”

To prevent the spread of the virus in the camps, the government has mobilized Rohingya community leaders – many of whom are camp elders and therefore at higher risk of the virus – to spread awareness on basic hygiene. But Rohingya leaders told Human Rights Watch that the internet shutdown has hampered their ability to do this.

“We used to run awareness campaigns among the community through WhatsApp and people used to follow those instructions,” said Nurul Alam, a 60-year-old camp leader. “But now if you plan something you need to walk to every camp and let the people know, which is time-consuming and sometimes the sharing of information doesn’t happen properly.”

Providing life-saving information door-to-door is dangerously inefficient, given the vast scale of the camps and urgency of the crisis, and runs counter to WHO guidance on social distancing. Aid workers have only been able to reach a small fraction of the population. Authorities have also not provided Personal Protective Equipment for all volunteers or other aid workers providing essential services.

The internet shutdown was already interfering with medical workers’ ability to provide emergency services and prevent disease outbreaks. In January 2020, a dozen children died from measles in Camps 12 and 13, but because of the internet blackout, health workers were slow to find out and were unable to intervene to isolate the infection’s spread. “The disease spread very fast and the parents were not be able to quickly inform us due to the network and internet disruption,” a health worker said. “When we came to know about the infection, it was too late.”

Communicating with relatives and friends outside the camp – particularly those still in Myanmar – has also been affected. This external communication was a direct source of information about conditions in Rakhine State which is critical for the Rohingya to determine whether it is safe to return.

“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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