Bangladesh will lift internet restrictions imposed on nearly a million Rohingya refugees, a senior official said on Monday, ahead of the third anniversary of their exodus from Myanmar.
The Bangladesh government has been under pressure from the United Nations and aid groups to end the restrictions over fears they are hampering efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus and provide a basic education to thousands of children.
Bangladesh’s foreign secretary said the government had banned high-speed internet in the camps last year because it could be used to spread “baseless rumours and misinformation” that could “create panic and destabilize the camps”.
“Responding to requests from our friends … we have taken a decision on lifting the restriction,” said Masud Bin Momen during a webinar on the crisis, referring to pressure from the United Nations and human rights groups.
The announcement came ahead of the third anniversary on Tuesday of attacks by Rohingya insurgents on police posts and an army base that unleashed a military crackdown, forcing 730,000 Muslim Rohingya to flee mainly Buddhist Myanmar for Bangladesh.
United Nations investigators later concluded that the Myanmar military campaign was executed with “genocidal intent”. Myanmar denies that, saying the army was battling the insurgency.
The 2017 arrivals joined more than 200,000 Rohingya already in Bangladesh after fleeing earlier violence, straining resources in one of Asia’s poorest countries.
More than 900,000 refugees live in the crowded camps, most in tents, with only limited sanitary facilities. They are not allowed to work or move freely in Bangladesh and must depend on aid agencies for food.
The coronavirus pandemic has made conditions even more difficult, with movement between some sections of the camp restricted and some communal areas temporarily closed.
The U.N. refugee agency welcomed the announcement that the internet restrictions would be lifted, saying improved communication would make it easier to contain the virus.
Bangladesh authorities have said the virus was well contained in the camps with just six deaths and about 60 infections.
Since last year, Rohingya refugees have only been able to access slower 2G internet, making it hard for them to stay in touch with relatives elsewhere or provide even an informal education to children in the camps, where schools are banned.
Refugee rights groups said it was crucial the world did not forget the plight of the Rohingya, who are unable to return to Myanmar where they say they face persecution, but have little future in Bangladesh, with no access to education or work.
Myanmar is facing charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice in the Hague over the violence.
On Monday Refugees International plans to hand U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a petition signed by more than 10,000 people urging Washington to formally declare the Myanmar military guilty of genocide.
“As these grim anniversaries continue to go through, there’s a risk of that being seen as normalised and just the way things are,” said Daniel Sullivan, senior advocate for human rights at Refugees International.
“What happened three years ago is one of the largest and most horrific atrocities of modern times,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.