Bangladesh restored internet access in Rohingya refugee camps and surrounding communities on Friday after a nearly year-long blackout, saying pressure from international groups led to the change.
When the government imposed the ban on internet services at the 34 refugee camps in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district on Sept. 3, 2019, authorities at the time said they were seeking to ensure security for the Rohingya population. The blockage left Bangladeshis who live in communities that surround the camps in the border region without internet service as well.
“Many local and foreign organizations insisted on lifting the ban, and we listened to them,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told BenarNews.
Mohammad Illiyas, secretary of the Arakan Rohingya National Union, thanked the government for lifting the ban.
“It seems, we have received a new ray of hope. We were thrown into the ‘Dark Age’ and now we get back to normalcy,” Illiyas told BenarNews. “Now, our children can enroll in online classes. They will spend some quality time here in the camps and life will be easier.”
More than 740,000 of about 1 million Rohingya in the Cox’s Bazar camps had fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine state amid a brutal military crackdown that began on Aug. 25, 2017, in the wake of deadly attacks carried out by Rohingya insurgents on army and police outposts.
Bangladesh officials announced the 2019 blackout a week after about 200,000 Rohingya rallied at the Kutupalong camp to mark the second anniversary of the beginning of the mass exodus.
At the same time as the ban was implemented, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) asked mobile phone providers to stop selling cellphone SIM cards to Rohingya, according to Mohamad Johurul Haque, the agency’s chairman.
“The Rohingya are not entitled to use Bangladeshi SIM cards. But they have been using a huge number of mobile SIM cards in and around the camps,” he told BenarNews at the time, referring to regulations stipulating that only people with passports or national ID cards were allowed to have mobile phones in Bangladesh.
Friday’s announcement did not affect Rohingya access to SIM cards. Khan, the minister, said the refugees found a way around the ban by getting the cards from and using internet networks in nearby Myanmar.
“[T]he locals were suffering,” he said of the internet ban.
Since the ban was instituted, local and international activists and officials, including Sam Brownback, the U.S. State Department’s ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom, have called for internet restoration.
In April, 25 Bangladeshi activists called on the government to lift the ban to spread information about the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Daily Star newspaper.
“We, therefore, request the Bangladesh government to restore mobile internet service immediately and help prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the Rohingya as well as the local communities,” the Star quoted the groups as saying in a joint statement.
Even early this week, as the world was preparing to mark the third anniversary of the Myanmar crackdown that drove hundreds of thousands of Rohngya across the frontier into southeastern Bangladesh, influential Western NGOs were clamoring for the government to restore access to mobile internet communications in the camps.
Among other reasons, they said this was needed to help children take part in remote learning as well as to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Rohingya population during the COVID-19 outbreak.
One of these groups, the International Rescue Committee, published a report Monday calling for restoration of internet services “to ensure all refugees have consistent access to speedy internet services across all camps in Cox’s Bazar so that children can learn.”
Access to the world
Md. Rashid, the chairman of the Arakan Rohingya National Union, said lifting the ban would allow refugees to have access to the rest of the world.
“Our life was confined to these refugee camps and we were deprived of all sorts of news around the world. It seems Rohingya get a new life,” he told BenarNews.
“Relatives of many Rohingya live in Middle East, Europe, the U.S. and many other parts of the world,” he said. “Since we didn’t have high-speed internet connections, we couldn’t contact them. The problem is now solved.”
Some officials and Rohingya, however, expressed concern that the return of the internet could bring with it a return of criminal activities, with gangs taking advantage of online access to communicate with each other.
An associate professor at the National Mental Health Institute questioned that assessment.
“Listen, criminals are criminals. We cannot say, only Rohingya are committing crimes and Bangladeshis are not. Labelling the entire group as criminals is unacceptable,” Helal Uddin Ahmed told BenarNews.
“It is not possible to control crime by banning high speed internet connections. Law enforcement agencies should find the causes behind the rising number of crimes but imposing restriction on connectivity would not reduce them.”