Bangladesh to lift Rohingya internet ban 'very soon'

The news came as Rohingya prepared to mark the third anniversary of the violence meted out against thier people in Myanmar

Rohingya people walk back to their house after collecting relief material in Kutupalong refugee camp, in Ukhia on August 24, 2020. / AFP / Munir Uz zaman
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Bangladesh will restore internet access to nearly a million Rohingya stuck in refugee camps "very soon", the government said Monday, on the eve of the third anniversary of their escape from Myanmar.

Authorities in Bangladesh cut mobile internet access to the sprawling camps in the country's southeast a year ago, citing security concerns, sparking international condemnation.

Foreign Secretary Masud bin Momen said Monday that the spread of "baseless rumours and misinformation" could create panic and destabilise the camps, where a few Rohingya have been killed in internal clashes in recent years.

"However, responding to the requests from our friends and also for the need of imparting education and Covid-19 response, for greater internet connectivity, we have taken a decision on lifting the restrictions on 3G and 4G mobile networks, which will be effective very soon," Mr Momen said.

The internet clampdown disrupted communications between different camps, as well as with Rohingya still in Myanmar and elsewhere. It also complicated wire transfers of money from the Rohingya diaspora.

Rights groups said the lack of internet access meant misinformation and rumours, particularly about the coronavirus, could spread unverified.

The first infection in the camps was detected in May but fears that the virus could spread quickly have so far not been realised.

Khin Maung, head of the Rohingya Youth Association, said the restoration of internet access was "very good news".

"We can now get regular updates on Covid-19. And we can mobilise people against the activities of the human traffickers," he said.

"With internet connections, we can also communicate with family members who live in Myanmar or other countries."

Some 750,000 Rohingya flooded across the border as they fled a military crackdown in Rakhine state in Myanmar in August 2017 that the UN has likened to ethnic cleansing, joining some 200,000 already in Bangladesh.

With protests banned by Bangladesh -- the government citing coronavirus restrictions -- the refugees were due to mark what they call "Genocide Remembrance Day".

Three years later and with no work or decent education for their children, there is little prospect of a return to Myanmar, where members of the mostly Muslim minority have long been treated as inferior intruders.

Myanmar's military "killed more than 10,000 of our people. They carried out mass murders and rapes and drove our people from their home", Mohib Ullah, a Rohingya leader in the camps, told AFP.

For the second anniversary last year, Mr Ullah led a rally of about 200,000 protesters at Kutupalong, the largest of the network of camps in southeast Bangladesh, where 600,000 people live in cramped and unsanitary conditions.

But the Bangladeshi authorities, increasingly impatient with the Rohingya, have banned gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The sprawling camps have been cut off from the rest of Bangladesh, with the military erecting barbed-wire fences around the perimeters. Inside, movement has been restricted.

"There will be no rallies, no work, no prayers at mosques, no NGO or aid activities, no schools, no madrasas and no food distribution," Mr Ullah said.

Bangladesh has signed an agreement with Myanmar to return the refugees. But the Rohingya refuse to go without guarantees for their safety and proper rights.

Khin Maung, a 25-year-old Rohingya activist who lost 10 relatives in the horrors of 2017, said the mood in the camps was very depressed.

"We want justice for the murders. We also want to go back home. But I don't see any immediate hopes. It may take years," Mr Maung, who leads a Rohingya youth group, said.

He said the desperation had led hundreds to flee the camps this year on rickety boats often arranged by unscrupulous trafficking gangs.

At least 24 refugees are believed to have drowned off Malaysia last month in the latest in a string of tragedies. The lone survivor managed to swim to shore.