Internet Connection Sparks Hope for the Persecuted Rohingya People

After a full year almost completely cut off from the internet or cell phone reception, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people living in the world’s largest refugee camps finally went back online this August, thanks to the vigorous advocacy of AJWS grantees and others in the international community.

The Rohingya people had been barred from the web by the Bangladeshi government, which ran the camps and controlled the fates of more than a million Rohingya refugees who narrowly escaped genocide in Burma. Their life in the overcrowded refugee camps was made even worse when COVID-19 struck and presented yet another threat to their existence.

Without the option to socially distance, preventing the spread of the virus has been extremely difficult. Misinformation—including the myth that COVID was always fatal, and that if you got tested the government would take you away—spread rapidly throughout the camps, discouraging people from getting tested or revealing symptoms.

To make matters worse, the Bangladeshi government severely limited internet access and cell phone reception, blocking genocide survivors from accessing life-saving information. The Burmese government did the same in Western Burma, making life even more dangerous for the Rohingya population that remains there.

An international call for justice

Rohingya activists and their allies at AJWS and around the world have called on the Burmese and Bangladeshi governments to lift this ban—alongside other demands we have made for justice for the Rohingya community. For the past three years, AJWS’s Advocacy team and leaders in our community—including rabbis and cantors from across the country—have advocated in the halls of power to demand safety and justice for the Rohingya people and all persecuted ethnic and religious minorities in Burma.

This year, drawing on our deep partnership with Rohingya-led organizations and activists, AJWS collaborated with allied organizations to help U.S. lawmakers write and deliver a letter to the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, urging that the internet restrictions in the refugee camps be lifted immediately.

The fight for connection continues

On Friday, August 28, these efforts paid off. At 9:00 a.m., the government of Bangladesh restored internet access and 3G and 4G mobile connectivity to the camps, where refugees celebrated their newfound freedom. This victory for human rights would not have been possible without sustained advocacy efforts by AJWS grantees, coalition partners and other activists around the world—and we were overjoyed.

Unfortunately, just two months later, Bangladesh reversed their decision, endangering Rohingya refugees once more. AJWS’s advocacy team, Jewish leaders and the greater AJWS community will continue to press for internet access, adding our voices to the powerful campaigns led by Rohingya leaders to advocate on behalf of their community.

Guided by our Jewish values and our unwavering commitment to human rights, we will keep up the fight for Rohingya connection, safety and justice, until the full human rights of this community are recognized and realized.

As Rabbi Felipe Goodman, an AJWS Global Justice Fellow and rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Las Vegas reminds us: “I want to ensure that when we say never again, we really mean it. Not only that it’s never again for us, but never again for anyone else…. We have to make sure we look outward, which is not only a nice thing to do—it’s a mitzvah.”