Bangladesh ordered telecommunications companies to stop selling SIM cards and shut down mobile phone services to almost one million Rohingya refugees living in sprawling refugee camps.
The order resonated across the camps on Monday, where it threatened to disconnect Rohingya from several settlements that stretch for kilometres in the border district of Cox’s Bazar. The communication blackout will also isolate Rohingya from family still in Myanmar from where they fled a brutal military crackdown.
Telecommunications operators have seven days to submit reports to the government on the actions they took to shut down networks in the camps, said Zakir Hossain Khan, spokesman for the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission.
“Many refugees are using mobile phones in the camps. We’ve asked the operators to take action to stop it,” Khan told the AFP news agency, saying the decision was made on “security grounds”.
The decree follows what the government describes as a series of violent crimes in the camps in recent weeks.
About 700,000 Rohingya fled into Bangladesh from Myanmar’s Rakhine State beginning in August of 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.
The mobile phone crackdown comes just days after tens of thousands of Rohingya rallied on the two-year anniversary of the exodus.
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.
Refugees relied on the technology, along with radio broadcasts, to disseminate information and connect with family.
“We won’t be able to communicate with our relatives living in Myanmar or other parts of the world,” a Rohingya leader, who did not want to be named, was quoted as saying.
The leader added many Rohingya who rely on remittances sent by their diaspora usually receive phone calls informing them of the money transfers.
A UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity, 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.
Ikbal Hossain, a police spokesman, hailed the decision saying the refugees had been “abusing” mobile phone access to conduct criminal activities such as trafficking of methamphetamine pills, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, from Myanmar.
“It will definitely make a positive impact. I believe criminal activities will surely come down,” he told the AFP.
Police also cited a string of criminal incidents as justification, including nearly 600 cases of drug trafficking, murders, robberies, gang fighting, and family feuds, since the refugees arrived.
Police also recently killed four Rohingya refugees while investigating the murder of a local ruling party official, Omar Faruk. Authorities have said Rohingya criminals are suspected to be behind the killing.
Faruk’s murder led hundreds of furious locals to block a highway leading to a refugee camp for hours on August 22, burning tyres and vandalising shops visited by refugees.
In total, Bangladeshi security forces have shot dead a total of at least 34 Rohingya over the past two years, mostly for alleged methamphetamines trafficking.
Rohingya refugees have said the recent bloodshed has created an atmosphere of fear in the camp, where security has been tightened. Rights groups have accused Bangladesh police of extrajudicial killings.
Bangladesh has struggled with the massive influx of Rohingya, which has caused a financial strain on the country’s already economically depressed south.
A repatriation agreement signed by Myanmar and Bangladesh in November 2017 has foundered, with several attempts scuttled amid resistance from Rohingya and condemnation from the international community.