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Bangladesh Bans Phone Access for 1 Million Rohingya Refugees Just in Case They Sell Drugs

The authorities say the refugees have been “abusing” phone services to traffic meth. But many say the move will simply just isolate the already persecuted Rohingya community.

by Pallavi Pundir
03 September 2019, 8:52am

This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.

In a move that will almost certainly isolate the one million Rohingya refugees at Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, the government has ordered telecommunications companies to shut down the camp’s mobile phone services. The order came on September 2 over what the Bangladeshi government is describing as “security grounds”. According to reports, the affected telecommunications operators have seven days to submit reports to the government on the measures they have taken to shut down all network services to the camps.

Even though Bangladesh had officially banned mobile phones back in September 2017—within a month of the Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar’s military crackdown—the decree was never fully enforced.

The authorities claim that the move is “positive”, and that it will help curb crime and violence. Ikbal Hossain, a police spokesman in Cox’s Bazar, told the AFP that refugees have been “abusing” mobile phone services to smuggle of methamphetamine pills, or yaba, as they’re colloquially known. "It will definitely make a positive impact. I believe criminal activities will surely come down," claimed the police spokesman.

Police authorities have also claimed to have dealt with cases of murder, robbery, gang war and family feuds within the camp. Ever since the exodus two years ago, Bangladeshi security forces have reportedly have shot at least 34 Rohingya refugees, mostly for yaba trafficking. However, human rights reports say these are extrajudicial killings by the Bangladeshi forces in the name of anti-drug operations.

Many say, however, that the communication ban has nothing to do with fighting crime. Even though there’s been no official reaction to the shutdown, the ban is being seen as one that will separate refugees from their families who’re still in Myanmar. A UN official told Al Jazeera, on conditions of anonymity, that the move will “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.

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