Lift arbitrary restrictions on internet and mobile communications, cease fencing camps

(COX’S BAZAR, March 16, 2020)—The Government of Bangladesh should take all necessary steps to protect Rohingya refugees and nearby host communities from infection by coronavirus, said Fortify Rights today. The authorities should immediately lift all restrictions that prevent Rohingya refugees from freely accessing mobile communications and the internet and also halt the construction of fencing aimed to confine Rohingya refugees in camps.

“Access to information is not only a right that extends to Rohingya refugees, it’s also essential to overall public health,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “Protecting the rights of refugees and preventing an outbreak of disease go hand-in-hand.”

On March 12, the World Health Organization’s Director-General declared the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, to be a “controllable pandemic.” The disease poses a particular risk to populations that live in close proximity to each other, such as in refugee camps.

Two Rohingya men walk through Kutupalong junction in Cox's Bazar District, Bangladesh. The Rohingya refugees live in 34 refugee camps in southern Bangladesh. The Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Camp is the largest refugee camp. ©Fortify Rights 2020
Two Rohingya men walk through Kutupalong junction in Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh. The Rohingya refugees live in 34 refugee camps in southern Bangladesh. The Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Camp is the largest refugee camp. ©Fortify Rights 2020

Bangladesh hosts one of the world’s largest refugee camps, home to more than 1.1 million Rohingya, most of whom fled Myanmar military-led genocidal attacks in 2016 and 2017. The vast majority of Rohingya camp residents live in temporary, substandard housing with inadequate water and sanitation—conditions that make the area vulnerable to an outbreak.

Access to adequate health care is already limited in the Rohingya camps, and many refugees suffer from current or chronic health issues, making them especially vulnerable to COVID-19, said Fortify Rights.

In December 2019, a novel coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China. There are now more than 167,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in at least 135 countries and territories. Bangladesh has confirmed eight cases of COVID-19 infections.

International humanitarian organizations and Rohingya-led groups are currently promoting best-practices in hygiene in the refugee camps in Bangladesh to prevent a potential coronavirus outbreak.

“Right after the detection of the first infected person in the country, we have taken precautionary measures in all 34 [refugee] camps,” Mahbub Alam Talukder, the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC), told media in March 2020. “We don’t have any equipment to test the virus. If we suspect anyone, we will isolate him or her. Then we will send the sample to Dhaka for confirmation.”

On March 10, the RRRC Office began a campaign to create awareness among Rohingya refugees about the virus.

However, since September 1, 2019, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) has directed all mobile-phone operators to limit 3G and 4G services in Teknaf and Ukhiya in Cox’s Bazar District. According to media reports, the BTRC directive said the measures were to “ensure that the Rohingya people do not get access to the mobiles for the sake of state security and importance, law and order and public safety.”

Fortify Rights interviewed Rohingya refugees and international humanitarian workers about internet and mobile-phone restrictions in the camps. A director of an international humanitarian organization working on the Rohingya response in Bangladesh told Fortify Rights that restrictions on refugees’ communications are adversely affecting the humanitarian organization’s ability to provide services to refugees. “The lack of SIM cards and internet affects everyone,” he told Fortify Rights. “It affects our humanitarian response.”

A Rohingya man and woman walk through a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar District, Bangladesh. ©Fortify Rights 2020
A Rohingya man and woman walk through a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh. ©Fortify Rights 2020

An “Operational Update” by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees—the U.N. agency mandated to protect refugees—in February 2020, likewise, said that the ban on SIM cards for refugees “has created challenges for coordination at field level for officials and agencies working in the humanitarian operation.”
“If we cannot keep up to date with people and situations in the camp, we cannot help people,” a Rohingya-refugee woman aid worker told Fortify Rights. “This is our job as Rohingya aid-workers.”
A Bangladeshi woman, 25, living in a nearby host community told Fortify Rights: “We don’t have any internet just like the Rohingya . . . I am upset.”
The Bangladeshi government’s construction of fencing to enclose the Rohingya refugee camps has created heightened distress and fear among Rohingya refugees, posing greater risks to public health and humanitarian access, Fortify Rights said.
In November 2019, Bangladesh Army Chief General Aziz Ahmed announced the construction of barbed-wire fencing around the Rohingya refugee camps. In February 2020, Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told journalists the reason for building the fencing was to “ensure that the Rohingya do not leave the camp and join our community.”
“We fled for our lives, escaping the difficulties in Myanmar,” said a Rohingya refugee man, 38, to Fortify Rights. “Now, in the refugee camps, the same difficulties are approaching us. Soon, we will be stuck inside the camp.”  
International law and principles protect Rohingya refugees’ rights to health, access to mobile and internet-based communication, and freedom of movement, said Fortify Rights.
Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,” while Article 2 requires States to guarantee the right to all “without discrimination of any kind.” To act in compliance with its international obligations, the authorities in Bangladesh must uphold the principle of non-discrimination and ensure refugees can access health services and other provisions under any national plan of action in response to COVID-19.
International law and standards protect refugees’ right to freedom of movement and authorize governments to only impose regulations that are equally applicable to other non-citizens present within the country’s borders. The construction of barbed-wire fencing that encloses Rohingya refugee camps discriminatorily infringes on Rohingya refugees’ right to freedom of movement in contravention of international law.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to “receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Recognizing the internet as a “key means” for individuals to exercise this right, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression held that States have a positive obligation to adopt “effective and concrete policies and strategies . . . to make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all.”

International law permits States to limit access to the internet for reasons of national security, but any such restriction must be provided by law, necessary to achieve a legitimate aim, and not be overbroad or disproportionate. In a 2016 resolution on the promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human rights on the internet, the U.N. Human Rights Council condemned “unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online” and called “on all States to refrain from and cease such measures.”

“If coronavirus reaches the camps, enforcing congestion and preventing the free-flow of information will only accelerate the spread of the disease,” said Matthew Smith. “Dhaka has an opportunity to get ahead of any potential outbreak and ensure that camp residents have everything they need to protect themselves and overall public health in the country.”

A Rohingya man walks near the construction of a perimeter fence around Kutupalong refugee camp, Cox's Bazar District, Bangladesh. ©Fortify Rights 2020
A Rohingya man walks near the construction of a perimeter fence around Kutupalong refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh. ©Fortify Rights 2020

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