Restriction on Rohingya Use of Internet Data in Bangladesh Triggers Debate  

By Muktadir Rashid   6 September 2019

Dhaka—New instructions from the Bangladesh government on access to mobile and high-speed internet by Rohingya refugees, especially at night time, have triggered heated debate there.

The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), the country’s sole mobile regulatory authority, has asked operators to stop providing mobile phone network access and to stop selling SIM cards to Rohingyas, and to report back to them within seven working days.

But many fear a suspension or restriction of information sharing could aid rather than limit the spread of rumor and misinformation in the densely populated refugee camps in the Ukhiya and Teknaf subdistricts of Cox’s Bazar.

“If they do this, it’s as if we’re living in an open-air prison. We will be like animals in a zoo,” said Muhammed Nowkhim, a Rohingya rights campaigner.

“We can’t get any information if something goes wrong inside the camp, like trafficking activities—which are happening all the time in the camp—and kidnapping,” he said; with mobile data, “you know better what’s going on in daily life.”

A senior police official speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to talk to the press told The Irrawaddy that he thought continuing SIM card sales would help monitor and investigate crimes in the camps.

Security analyst and retired Major General Shahidul Hoque agreed, saying there are three reasons to keep mobile phone networks in the camps up and running: first, he said, they help camp management disseminate important information and avoid misinformation and rumor; second, they aid community management; and third, they help prevent and trace crimes.

Bangladeshi authorities are reportedly responding harshly to a peaceful mass gathering of Rohingya in the camps on Aug. 25. On Sept. 2 they asked all mobile operators to suspend mobile network access to the camps, citing media and intelligence reports of massive usage of mobile phone networks inside.

The BTRC also decided to halt 3G and 4G connections, the fastest data connections available, between evening and morning hours beginning that day, and to have mobile operators weaken signals in border areas alongside Myanmar.

Mohammad Tanzimuddin Khan, who teaches refugee and migration issues at the Dhaka University’s International Department, said authorities came to the decision after questioning how the mass Rohingya had organized the Aug. 25 gathering, and whether it had been done through the use of mobile phone communications.

But, he said, the government should have determined whether or not mobile phone networks were actually misused or abused before making their decision.

Without mobile networks, he said, Rohingya could become more vulnerable to crises born of rumor.

Many Rohingyas in the camps told The Irrawaddy they had deleted all previous communications on their phones, fearing harassment while carrying the phones on them.

One youth said he was still using his phone but deactivated his social media accounts fearing that he could be targeted.

In the past few months, Bangladesh Police authorities in Cox’s Bazar have been pushing a set of recommendations for the government to limit SIM card sales and network access to help them strengthen their monitoring of the one million-plus forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals living in the 33 camps in Bangladesh territory.

A letter sent on April 29 to the government said Rohingya were collecting unauthorized SIM cards and using them for various criminal activities.

“At this stage, each eligible Rohingya can be permitted to avail themselves of one authorized SIM card against their ration or food card,” the April 29 letter said, also suggesting that many in the camps were using 3G and 4G networks to induce others to get involved in criminal activities. The letter suggested that telecom operators could be asked to suspend network access in Rohingya-populated areas from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily to prevent such offenses.

Dhaka-based newspaper the Dhaka Tribune reported that the BTRC, with the help of mobile phone operators, will verify around 900,000 mobile connections regularly used in Rohingya refugee camps in Teknaf and Ukhiya.

Since Aug. 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya have fled targeted violence and serious human rights violations reportedly committed by the Myanmar military, taking shelter in Cox’s Bazar, where 100,000 other Rohingya had already been taking refuge for decades.

Between August 2017 and June 2019 a total of 353 criminal cases involving Rohingya were filed against 793 individuals.

The crimes have involved illegal arms and drugs possession, robbery, rape, abduction, smuggling, theft, murder and human trafficking.

Most cases—128—are for drug possession.

At least 33 cases filed were for murder.