Up to a million stateless Rohingya refugees are living in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions in the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh, having fled persecution and violence in Myanmar over two years ago.
Now, the Bangladeshi government wants to cut off one of their last links to the outside world.
The telecommunications minister has ordered the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), with the help of mobile phone operators, to cut off cell phone service to Cox’s Bazar from Sunday, citing “public safety” and “state security” as reasons for taking the action.
The commission has ordered that only Bangladeshis with ID cards will be allowed to possess local SIM cards, and the sale of cellphone services has been banned in the camps completely.
“Many refugees are using mobile phones in the camps. We’ve asked the operators to take action to stop it,” a spokesperson for the commission told AFP.
Bangladesh has consistently refused to grant the Rohingya any sort of formal status, leaving most of them stateless.
One Rohingya leader said the impact of the ban will be huge, as it will disrupt communications between different camps scattered across the border district of Cox’s Bazar.
“We won’t be able to communicate with our relatives living in Myanmar or other parts of the world,” the leader told Asian Correspondent.
As well as communication, many Rohingya rely on cell phones to inform them about remittances sent by their families around the world.
Mobile internet services have already been curtailed in the camps. Services are shut off from 5 p.m to 5 a.m., and there are reports that police have begun confiscating cell phones from refugees.
The police have welcomed the decision, claiming refugees had been using their phones to coordinate criminal activities such as trafficking of methamphetamine pills worth hundreds of millions of dollars from Myanmar.
Bans on the sale of cell phones and SIM cards have been put in place before but telecommunications operators have largely ignored them.
“The Bangladeshi government’s decision to cut off cell phone service to Rohingya refugees is adding to the plight of an already vulnerable population,” Melody Patry, advocacy director at rights group Access Now, told VICE News.
From Sudan to Sri Lanka, and even across the border in Rakhine State, governments are increasingly using the tactic of cutting off access to the internet as a way of silencing dissenting voices and quelling protest movements.
“Cutting access to the internet and communications is becoming a popular tactic worldwide for governments who wish to control information and restrict freedom of expression,” Patry said. “Often citing ‘national security’ as a justification, the move is counterproductive and exacerbates tensions. Shutting down cell phone service and other networks can also hide violence and abuse, and prevent people from receiving much-needed help.”
Cover: Photo taken Aug. 22, 2019, shows a refugee camp for Rohingya in Cox's Bazar, southeastern Bangladesh. (Kyodo via AP Images) ==Kyodo