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Internet access in the camps has been shut down since September 2019, following a directive from the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission.
Rohingya leaders have urged Bangladesh to lift an internet ban imposed on a million refugees in the city of Cox’s Bazar, warning that rumors and panic over COVID-19 are deterring people from getting tested.
Limits on communication are exacerbating already dire conditions for the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, who live in cramped bamboo huts with as many as eight family members to a room. They are dependent on communal taps and toilets. In some areas, basics such as soap are lacking, human rights organizations denounced.
Internet access in the camps has been shut down since Sept. 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.
For its part, aid agencies in the city in south-east Bangladesh, 20 miles from the border with Myanmar, have warned repeatedly that the virus could thrive in the camps and that medical facilities would be unable to cope.
As of June 10, 35 refugees have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization, while three have died. In total, 30 are in quarantine, though it is feared that there are more undetected cases.
The outbreak has coincided with flu season, adding to confusion over symptoms. Still, community members say that people are avoiding going to clinics because of rumors that they are being moved to isolation facilities.
Last week, two people fled the quarantine because they believed they would be sent to centers far from their families or even that they would be killed. Rumors fueled by disconnection and isolation, according to reports.
Mohammad Shaiful, 25, who lives with his wife, uncle, and one-year-old daughter, said misinformation spread quickly in the camp. “There’s a rumor that people will be killed in quarantine,” he explained.
“Like doctors are injecting them with something that’s causing the deaths. Also, doctors are ‘giving’ coronavirus to people who don’t even have it and killing them. People tend to believe those rumors rather than putting some sense into it,” he added.
Meanwhile, Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation U.K., said that the Rohingya were grateful to Bangladesh for hosting them in Cox’s Bazar, but that internet services should be switched on so that people could receive news and reliable information about the pandemic.
“They can’t follow what’s happening in the world and how many people have died. They need to know what is happening with COVID-19 so they can learn from that and see how it is a danger to the whole community,” he said.
Many of the Rohingya refugees sheltering in Cox’s Bazar fled to Bangladesh in 2017, following a military crackdown in Myanmar on its minority Muslim population, which the UN has since said was carried out with “genocidal intent.”
After three years in the camps, with people unable to access education or build livelihoods, conditions have become increasingly desperate, and the pandemic is now added.