Almost one million Rohingya Muslims living in refugee camps in Bangladesh face a communications blackout after the government ordered a ban on mobile phone services and sim cards. Officials say the mobile network block is intended to protect national security, citing incidents of violence that have broken out in the camps.
“Access to sim cards has been a vital service for the Rohingya for years, and they have utilised them extremely effectively to raise awareness of their plight to the world” said Kyaw Win, the executive director of Burma Human Rights Network, to the Guardian.
The order came after almost 200,000 Rohingya participated in a peaceful gathering, which was attended by UN officials, at the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp to mark the second anniversary of their exodus into Bangladesh by rallying and praying as they demanded Myanmar grant them citizenship and other rights.
“We have asked the Burmese government for dialogue. But we haven’t got any response from them yet,” said Rohingya leader Mohib Ullah at the demonstration.
In recent months, more than 40 Rohingya have been killed, amid concerns that some refugees are involved in smuggling illegal drugs to Myanmar. In August, there were violent anti-refugee protests by locals after police blamed Rohingya refugees for the murder of Omar Faruk, a ruling party official.
“Bangladesh authorities have a major challenge in dealing with such a large number of refugees, but they have made matters worse by imposing restrictions on refugee communications and freedom of movement,” said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director.
About 700,000 Rohingya fled into Bangladesh from Myanmar’s Rakhine State in August 2017, following a military crackdown on the majority-Muslim Rohingya minority, an apparent systemic purge described by the United Nations as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. They joined about 200,000 Rohingya who fled years earlier.
While Bangladesh officially banned mobile phones in the camps in 2017, the measure was never wholly enforced and mobile phone sets and SIM cards remained easily available in a thriving market in the camps.
On Sunday 8 September, the operators were asked to block mobile services and stop selling mobile SIMs to the Rohingya, who rely on technology, along with radio broadcasts, to connect with their families.
A UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity to AFP, said the move would “would further isolate and victimise the already persecuted people”. “Seeking to limit their communication amongst themselves, with Bangladeshis and people abroad, will serve to push them towards negative coping habits be it crime, violence or extremism,” he said.
Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a repatriation deal in November 2017, with a plan to return the refugees within two years. Bangladesh, with the help of the UN refugee agency, attempted to start the repatriation of 3,450 Rohingya on 22 August for a second time after the last attempt in November, but none agreed to go back voluntarily.
Rohingya leader Mohib Ullah said the stateless minority wanted to return home, but only after they were granted citizenship, their security was ensured and they were allowed to settle back in their villages.
“We have asked the Burmese government for dialogue. But we haven’t got any response from them yet,” Ullah told the rally at the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp.